Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Protein For Height?

If you grew up in my generation in Israel, you’re most likely significantly taller than your parents. The average height of Israelis born in the 60’s is probably 2-3 inches more than their parents, a significant change. But since then, average height hasn’t been changing much. My kids are around my height (with adjustments for one of them being a boy…), and that’s pretty much par for the course.

In the U.S., average height hasn’t been increasing since around the turn of the past century (1900). This is what I heard from an academic pediatrician. Overall, however, Americans are somewhat taller than Israelis, Italians and the French, shorter than the British, and much shorter than the Dutch. In fact, the Dutch take the gold with the tallest population in Europe. Average height for a Dutch woman in her 20’s is 5’9”(!). I don’t know about men, but I’d speculate 6’1”.

The interesting point is that the Dutch were not taller than other Europeans before WWII. For some reason, there has been a dramatic increase in their height in the last 50 years. Why is this huge change of interest? Because it implies that apart from genetics, there is some other method of increasing an individual’s height. Now for most people, this isn’t really a need. But for a significant minority, it is.

My gym offers every new member a few classes with an individual trainer to acquaint us with the equipment. My trainer was a fairly short (I think 5’5”), overly muscle bound guy. He was very sweet, and we talked about his reasons for muscle building. He loved it because it made him feel substantial next to other guys. I could understand. But I could also of course see that no amount of muscle building would make up for his height, and that his stature had bothered him since his childhood.

There are many kids like that, and it’s fairly predictable, usually their parents are on the short side as well. So instead of building enormous muscles as adults, is there something that can be done for them as kids? The medical establishment has been working on this question for years, and in extreme cases, they will give children shots of growth hormone in the hope that they’ll grow taller. It’s not clear how well this works.

So back to the Dutch. And the comparison to Israelis, Italians, and Americans. What is the difference? How did the Dutch get so tall?

Well, if you’ve spent some time in Holland, you know that the Dutch drink prodigious quantities of milk. Easily 4-6 cups a day as adults. Probably similar for kids. When not drinking milk they like to have this wonderful fruit yogurt that comes in large milk cartons. Add to that Gouda and Edam cheeses… Mucho protein. Compare this to a typical Italian diet. A little bread with jam in the morning. A pasta with perhaps a cream dressing for lunch. Maybe a salad. More pasta, maybe a little meat for dinner. Perhaps a gelato in between. Some coffee, some wine and a couple of aperitivos…

So how much protein do we need? Well, I’m told that a minimum for a woman of my height is 50 grams per day, and recommended is 120. Have you every tried to eat 120 grams of protein a day? One way to do it is to add protein powder to your food – protein enhanced smoothies, etc. Another alternative is to drink lots of milk – 5-6 glasses a day. Otherwise, it’s virtually impossible.

So what happens when adults add this protein to their diet? Well, if you’re also doing some weight-bearing exercises, the effect is dramatic. You build muscle that can rival Schwarzeneger. No steroids required.

And what happens if you give a child such quantities of protein? Well, I would speculate that they get taller. Just like the Dutch.

It’s of course unproven, and would be very hard to prove. But perhaps it’s a benign way of increasing height in children that are otherwise destined to be much shorter than their peers. Which is a good thing.

It’s not very difficult. Bodybuilders have figured it out. Various fruit shakes with added protein taste pretty good. Most kids would drink chocolate milk supplemented with protein powder if they were offered it regularly. Maybe 120gr per day is a good target. It’s very unlikely to do any harm, and I’m willing to bet it would do a lot for their final height.


At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link is proven. Protein intake among children directly accounts for increases in height. The change in Japan post-war has been among the most dramatic ever recorded, as the diet changed with the introduction of dairy and a diet much richer in meat.

At 12:01 AM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

It hasn't been proven. It can only be speculated. Many other things happened post-war which could have accounted for the change in the height of the Japanese or the Dutch for that matter. This uncertainty is part of the reason that a recommendation for exceptionally high protein diets doesn't appear as standard care in cases of children that are at risk for being exceptionally short. Despite the fact that they are sometimes treated with the more extreme measure of growth hormone supplementation. I'm just saying that despite the lack of conclusive evidence, a very high protein diet should be the recommendation.

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What else can you point to in Japan that could account for the huge increases in height, if not diet?

At 3:17 PM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

Better sanitation, reduced incidence of infectuous diseases through the introduction of antibiotics, higher overall caloric intake, those are reasons that are often cited.

BTW, as you see, I personally do believe that level of protein intake is the primary reason. But I'm saying that it's not accepted as a scientifically proven result, and (perhaps as a result) it's not used as a primary mode of therapy.

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