The Dutch the World's Tallest People

Most of us are taller than our parents, who probably are taller than their parents. But in the Netherlands, the generational progression has reached new heights.

In the last 150 years, the Dutch have become the tallest people on Earth — and experts say they're still getting bigger. It is a tale of a nation's health and wealth.

Prosperity propelled the collective growth spurt that began in the mid-1800s and was only interrupted during the harsh years of the Nazi occupation in the 1940s — when average heights actually declined.

With their protein-rich diet and a national health service that pampers infants, the Dutch are standing taller than ever. The average Dutchman stands just over 6 feet, while women average nearly 5-foot-7.

Ask Pieter Gijselaar about the problems of the very tall.

At more than 6-feet-10 1/2, he spends a lot of time ducking through doorways and guarding against minor head injuries. In an economy-class airline seat, he only fits in the emergency exit row. He had to have the seat of his Volkswagen Golf specially fitted and blocks put under the legs to raise his office desk.

But Gijselaar, a 28-year-old real estate agent, says he has it easier than his father, who is 6-foot-5.

"Buying clothes and shoes is not a problem anymore. You can always find stores that sell large sizes," he said. "But it's not cheap. I don't get any discounts off the rack."

Though people tend to stare, Gijselaar says being head, shoulders and trunk above everyone else makes an impression. "People don't forget me. If you meet me a year from now, you'll remember who I am."

The Dutch were not noted for their height until recently. It was only in the 1950s that they passed the Americans, who stood tallest for most of the last 200 years, said John Komlos, a leading expert on the subject who is professor of economic history at the University of Munich in Germany. He said the United States has now fallen behind Denmark.

Many Dutch are much taller than average. So many, in fact, that four years ago the government adjusted building codes to raise the standards for door frames and ceilings. Doors must now be 7-feet, 6 1/2-inches high.

For years, the Dutch national air carrier had an agreement with the Tall People's Club to give preference to club members for front seats with extra leg room. The airline scrapped the deal last year because of complaints of discrimination by more normal-sized people, club spokesman Paul van Sprundel said.

Though that was a setback, the national railway did ask the club to try out seats for new railway cars.

"More and more people are becoming aware of our needs," Van Sprundel said.

The club has a membership of 2,000 individuals and families, or about 4,500 people including children. But Van Sprundel said the requirements are minimal, to conform with similar clubs in other countries — about 6-foot-3 for men and 5-foot-11 for women.

By those standards, he estimates about 800,000 people would qualify in this country of 16 million.

It wasn't always this way.

In 1848, one man out of four was rejected by the Dutch military because he was shorter than 5-foot-2. Today, fewer than one in 1,000 is that short.

George Maat, an anthropologist at Leiden University Medical Center, cites a study done in 1861 correlating the height of conscripts to the availability and price of rye, then the main food crop. One year after a poor crop, the number of men rejected as too short shot up.

Height appears to come naturally with the territory. Two thousand years ago, the men of the Low Countries stood about 5-foot-9 — tall for the age — and were enlisted as guards for the Roman emperor, Maat said.

Average heights declined over the next 1,800 years as food supply failed to keep pace with population growth and people moved into disease-ridden cities, said Maat. He spoke from his office, cluttered with leg bones and skulls, overlooking a grassy quadrangle that is the burial site of thousands killed by plague in 1635.

Even during the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the world's richest city, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few merchants and average height did not increase.

It took until World War I for the Dutch to regain the 4 inches they lost over two millennia.

As lifestyles improve, Maat said the average height of a Dutch man could reach 6-foot-3 within 50 years. The influx of immigrants from North Africa may slow the growth rate, but their descendants could catch up in a few generations.

But wealth doesn't explain everything. Scandinavians, who are among the world's tallest people at 6 feet, are not getting taller on average, apparently hitting their genetic glass ceiling.

"With better food, Pygmies will increase in height, but you will never make Dutchmen out of them. It's just not there in the genes," Maat said.

"Since we are still on the move, we don't know where it's going to end," he said. "It's upward, yes, but how far upward we don't know."