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Shorter and lighter they grow

Neil Ray | November 09, 2020 00:00:00

An Imperial College London study has come up with a comparative average growth of school-aged children between five and 19 years across countries. Published online in the prestigious Lancet, the differences in average height and weight are simply staggering. The tallest 19-year-olds -- both boys and girls --are in the Netherlands and their counterparts in East Timor and Guatemala are the shortest with a height difference of 23.7 centimetre and 19.5 centimetre respectively. While the average height of a 19-year-old boy in the Netherlands is 183.8 cm, it is 160.1 cm for such a boy in East Timor. The average height of a Dutch girl at this age is 170.4 cm and for a Guatemalan girl it is 150.9 cm.

Now where does this school-aged children group in Bangladesh find itself? The average height of boys here is 165.1 cm --- 18.7 cm shorter than their Dutch counterparts and 5.3 cm shorter than even Dutch girls. Girls' height in Bangladesh is 151. 4 cm and no wonder both boys and girls find their place among the 10 countries with the shortest adolescents. What is particularly worrying is that an 11-year-old Dutch girl reaches the height a Bangladeshi or Guatemalan girl does at the age of 19.

If the height inequality is not enough, there is the disproportionate Body Mass Index (BMI) to make a pathetic commentary on child health in Africa's sub-Saharan, South Asian and Latin American countries. The reason behind stunted growth and lopsided height to weight ratio is lack of nutritious and balanced foods. The BMI of South Asian countries -- India and Bangladesh scoring especially poorly -- is the lowest.

What is significant is that children up to age five in many countries have height and weight in the WHO-prescribed range but it is in the school-age years they fail to live up to the standard benchmarks. Evidently, lack of adequate and healthy foods and environment at this age stands in their way to achieving the desirable growth. In this context, it should be noted that excessive, unbalanced and what is called fast foods can be no less harmful than insufficient quality diet. Scanty and nutrition-deficit foods lead to less body weight and overeating or regular consumption of fast foods causes obesity.

The average Bangladeshi children may score poorly on BMI, but in a segment of society, particularly in the large cities, they are becoming obese. It is because of lack of awareness of healthy foods. The moneyed class mostly spoil their school-going children by allowing them to eat take-away or processed foods on a regular basis. The teenagers get as much pocket money as they demand to feast in groups on the additive and trans fat-filled items from fast food corners or outlets. The fact that children are also developing diabetes and heart complications bears witness to the bad food habits.

However, the majority of the adolescents here suffer from underweight because of paucity of foods and lack of the nutritious kind. Various initiatives taken by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with governments all across the globe has been able to reduce child mortality to a significant number. Bangladesh is also a high performer on this score. But the focus has been mostly on babies and children up to five years old.

Now is the time for governments, particularly the ones like that of Bangladesh, to target the children in the five to 19 age group for improving their dietary intake. There is a need for a policy guideline to make adequately nutritious foods available to this generation even if it calls for subsidy. China and South Korea have proved generations can grow taller. An average Chinese boy in 2019 has grown 8.0 cm taller than in 1985. If China can do this so can Bangladesh.

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