Saturday, March 24, 2007

Height and hunger

Walking through the mall today, it suddenly occurred to me: "Why is everyone so short?"

No, it wasn't an unexpected attack of vanity. At 5'8" (173cm), I'm slightly taller than the average Filipino, but I know that I'm typically not that much taller. It just seemed that everyone else I saw at the mall seemed so much shorter now.

Following this vector of thought, might it not be related to the much-vaunted issue of hunger in the Philippines?

Dean of Philippine Commentary tackles the issue of the SWS survey relating to hunger. Indeed, it's a flawed survey because of the loaded nature of the question. I don't deny that hunger does occur, but I've always been wary of Filipinos and surveys. We have a tendency to...exaggerate...and perhaps unconsciously veer towards the "right" answer expected by the interrogator.

So rather than tabulating subjective opinions, why not look at indisputable physical statistics? Like the average height of male and female Filipinos in different generations, for example? Are Filipinos getting taller? Shorter? Staying more or less the same?

To be sure, there are factors other than nutrition that affect height. Genes, certainly. Physical activity, too. Perhaps some other environmental contributors. But it can't be denied that proper nutrition does affect height.

Nutrition is a key word, I think. Hunger just sounds so melodramatic, especially in a survey. Nutrition, on the other hand, doesn't just look at the intake of food but the proper quality of vitamins, minerals, and proteins that someone receives.

"Hunger" brings up images of acute hunger or starvation, e.g., bone-thin children with bloated bellies in war-torn and drought-hit countries. But just as real is daily undernourishment. From the web site of the World Food Programme:

defined as a state in which the physical function of an individual is impaired to the point where he or she can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, learning abilities, physical work and resisting and recovering from disease.

The term covers a range of problems from being dangerously thin (see Underweight) or too short (see Stunting) for one's age to being deficient in vitamins and minerals or being too fat (obese)

Malnutrition is measured not by how much food is eaten but by physical measurements of the body - weight or height - and age.


Stunting: reflects shortness-for-age; an indicator of chronic malnutrition and calculated by comparing the height-for-age of a child with a reference population of well nourished and healthy children

A Georgia Tech presentation explains further:

Stunting is failure to grow to normal height caused by chronic undernutrition during the formative years of childhood. Worldwide there are 215 million stunted children. Children from Asia make up about two-thirds of the stunted children worldwide. When these children emigrate to areas that are food-sufficient or that have food surpluses, they cannot "make up" their lost height, but they frequently have children who are much taller than they are because their children reach their genetic potentials.

So is there hunger in the Philippines or not? Are families getting enough to eat? Are children getting enough of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins? Should we start laying off McDonald's and Jollibee?

Don't put out a questionnaire. Take out a measuring tape.

One thing's for sure, though: you can't wish this away with a magic wand in the next six months.


  1. Hi Dom,

    I'm good, thanks!

    Regarding height and nutrition you've hit the nail on the head. There's other evidence...

    I've read somewhere that since around 1950s since they've started to consume more milk and meat, the average height of the Japanese woman has increased by 4 to 6 inches (or somethings quite dramatic as that in a single generation).

    Also, if you ever go to Boston Harbor and visit Old Ironsides, a famous warship in the US, one gets the distinct impression it was manned by really small men and it appears a similar spurt in height has been documented in Americans.

    Still all the hamburgers I eat don't seem to help me in that dimension nowadays (must be the longganiza and bibinga or something)...

  2. Thanks for visiting, Dean.

    Hamburgers only help me grow sideways. =)

  3. Hi Dominique,

    Good article you've got here.

    I believe that good nutrition does have something to do with increase in height (or weight as the case may be).

    I noticed the phenomenon in my American nephews and nieces (born of Fil-Fil parents but raised in the US and Canada) as well as in many children of Filipino couples living in Europe.

    Obviously, there are many Filipino children living in the west who aren't that tall; basically, this could be attributed to genes but on the whole, I've noticed the changes in overall size changes of these children.

    My sister is of average height standing at 5'5" (1m66) and her Fil husband is only 5'7" but their US-born boys are incredibly tall, both being incredible 6 footers. Undoubtedly, something to do with good diet, vitamins and lots of physical excercise.

    A Fil couple I know in Paris who are not tall at all (5'4 and 4'11 resepctively sort of) have a son who is at least 5'8 while the daughter must be 5'4. They said their family background had never boasted of any one being taller than 5'4. The children were born in France - again I believe their increase in height and physical corpulence in general had something to do with good diet; their Mom used to tell me that she was absolutely strict with their diet when they were growing up, only fresh vegetables, steak and lots of fresh fruit and milk/yoghurt/cheese and NO SODA.

    I noticed the same phenomenon in Pinas among the children of many of my friends who have access to good food and better quality of life.

    So, indeed, reasonably good nutrition, plenty of good exercise and a on the whole, a better quality of life can help boost height even in Filipino children of predominantly "short" parents.

  4. Thanks for the anecdotal evidence, HB! It's something I've seen with some returning Fil-Ams, but I didn't have any first-hand info to really make something of it.

  5. Here is MY alternative explanation (thanks to your own piece for giving me the idea!)

  6. if only somebody at the Palace thought of delving into deeper lines of analysis like this one before they released that statement on avoiding luxuries and the president having experienced hunger herself. because it's not so much the hunger incidence stats that provoked a lot of people, but the president's patronizing reaction to it. and - feeding programs? seriously?

  7. I know I may be just fantasizing but I was watching this African music channel and one thing I noticed about black Africans as compared to black American is that the latter are more round-shaped. Makes me wonder if nutrition-- again-- shapes us more than we know.

  8. When my mother and I talked about this survey a couple of days ago, I mentioned the nature of the Filipinos to exaggerate (and really, the concept of 'hunger' is subjective and even romanticized at some point) but still found a way to blame the government for it --- I pointed out the same thing you did: nutrition. (Yes, yes, I'm just that mean)

    One of my cousins, a company nurse, and I had a discussion about the yearly national budget for health and social services, which, sadly, is only the 8th (9th?) priority of the gov't. It gives an amount not even enough to buy a band-aid for each Filipino. While it might be such a far-fetched idea (health budget) for some, I believe that this affects the rate of malnutrition and undernutrition in the country.

    But then, like one of my friends mentioned once, Filipinos should just look at the people in Africa and tell them they're starving. That shall be a most interesting scenario.

    We can't really blame just the Filipinos for the "values" they've developed when it comes to splurging. The media have much to do with this too. They feed the people with mindless entertainment, and obviously, the Filipinos are a passive audience. They're being taken advantage of, pure and simple. And hey, let's give them some slack! Splurging is the only way they can feel good about themselves and think that just once, they're equated with the upper class.

    Anyway, I agree with Rina; the people in the palace should have refuted the results of the survey with a quite insensitive, ridiculous, and shallow 'analysis'. Funnily enough, if the surveys released are positive for the image of the gov't, they always seem to agree. :D

  9. That last paragraph should be "the people in the palace should have refuted the results of the survey with more than a quite insensitive, ridiculous, and shallow 'analysis'."

    My apologies, sir. :)

  10. Rina: Gee, thanks. Palace spinmeisters really just come across as stubbornly dense, with no hint of finesse. The best they can do is insist on a point. So that's why, I guess. A more in-depth view on feeding programs (done right) can be found at Willy Prilles blog (

    BC: In my travels across Southeast Asia, I've noticed a marked difference between Malaysians/Singaporeans and Filipinos, despite our having common stock. And that difference, I think, arises from our heavy pork diet as opposed to their pork-free menu. Thanks for bringing it up. I'll try to write about it in a later post.

    Shari: yup, we're nowhere in the league of countries who've gone through real starvation, and thank goodness! Good point on the values, though DJB has tackled this to some extent; it's a matter of finding the right balance. Anyway, subject for a future entry.

    Thanks all for dropping by!