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.