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Nutrition and Organic Development

Going back to the anthropometric approach, a lot of historical literature has outlined the links between nutrition, health and body height.[1] [2] [3] [4] From the mid 19th century onwards physical anthropologists, general practitioners and paediatricians applied anthropometric measures in order to lay out standards of human development.[5] At the end of the 20th century economic historians developed a new methodological orientation: anthropometric history, taking human height as an indicator of wellbeing and social development. The industrial revolution contributed towards changing the social circumstances, the economy, the environment, housing, habits, diet, working conditions; and all of these elements became influential factors for bodily development.[6] From this bio-somatic perspective, the achievement of a balanced diet, based on the regular consumption of energy and nutrients, influenced body size and height.[7] Alleging that the demographic transition had caused fertility to fall, and that the epidemiologic phase had put an end to avoidable premature deaths, anthropometric historians argued that the nutritional transition had led to an increase in the size of the European tphopulation of more than ten centimetres on average in the 20th century.[8] Nevertheless, anthropometric models show that this increase did not follow a linear tendency. On the contrary, some periods of height decrease and impairment have been associated with agricultural crises, demographic pressures and degraded living conditions in unhygienic industrialised areas - among other negative factors influencing the start of the modern economic growth.[9]

Establishing statistical relations between body height, level of income, education and life expectancy, anthropometric history has proposed quantitative parameters to assess biological wellbeing.[10] It argues that a high level of income, a positive environment and a healthy lifestyle correlate positively with height, education and longevity, but negatively with infant and child mortality. In addition to genetic inheritance, anthropometry has shown that changes in height over several generations express a tendency related to nutrition during childhood and adolescence.[11]

Nutrition has become a central issue in explaining social development. Economic historians have emphasised that the positive correlation of nutrition with public health improving the nutritional state of the population also reduces the health care budget, improves the perception of wellbeing and increases productivity.[12] From a complementary perspective, the economist Angus Deaton associates the nutritional condition acquired in childhood with mental and physical health, especially for the elderly.[13] Moreover, good health in childhood correlates positively with success in school and better employment.[14] This is something not only assumed by public health experts and economists, but also by governments and institutional authorities.[15]

Since the 1990s economic historians have sampled large amounts of records on soldiers’ height as a way of assessing the influence of industrialisation, migration and periods of crisis upon the standard of living. Although conscription started in the 18th century, paleontologists and physical anthropologists have studied much older bodies.[16] Due to limitations related with the sources, most of this research refers to adult men, with records on women’s and children’s height being much scarcer. This failure was more evident until women appeared in schools, universities, hospitals and prisons, the specific places where human measurements were taken. Some of the women’s records are socioeconomically biased, since the main purpose of taking measurements was to see if the evolution of height in women followed the same tendency as that of men.[17] Several aspects, such as being a housewife or a working woman, as well as the unequal distribution of foodstuffs in the diet of the family members, can introduce relevant differences. The father’s preferential position as the active worker and breadwinner earned him a number of benefits in the household’s distribution of foodstuffs, such as more meat, eggs and animal produce than other members of the family. Similarly, boys were positively discriminated against in relation with girls. Thus, men’s height integrated more external influences than in the case of women, and was therefore more likely to be negatively affected under extreme circumstances, as has been described in situations of extreme malnutrition in internment



Anthropometric research has also confirmed the biological influence of social inequalities. Nutritional deficiencies were frequently caused by poverty and exclusion. General practitioners knew very well that poor nutrition led to infection and therefore medicine created the category of the pre-tubercular child, a clinical prototype common among peasantry and poor working classes in industrial areas. Until the end of the 19th century a low height in urban suburbs populated by low class nonqualified workers was attributed to chronic malnutrition. Bodily measurements were substantially better among qualified workers and the middle and upper classes.[18] [19] [20] At the beginning of the 19th century the poor members of the Marine Society in London were 130 cm tall, while the aristocratic cadets of the Military Academy of Sandhurst were

155 cm,[21] an evident expression of social inequality. Research has shown that other European countries followed a similar pattern.[22]

  • [1] Velasco, C., Rodergas, R., “Los productos alimenticios y la publicidad”, Comoviviamos: alimentos y alimentacion en la Espana del siglo XX, Madrid, Lunwerg,2007, pp. 119-138.
  • [2] Beneito, A., Puche Gil, J., “Creixement economic i desenvolupament fabril en Alcoi,1840-1915: Miseria fisiologica sota l’esplendor industrial?”, La societat industrial alPais Valencia, Alcoi, 2008.
  • [3] NicolauNos, R., Pujol Andreu, J., “Variaciones regionales de los precios de consumoy de las dietas en Espana, en los inicios de la transicion demografica”, Documents deTreball (UAB. Unitat d’Historia Economica), No. 29, 2005.
  • [4] Tanner, J.M., “Growth as a mirror of conditions in society”, Lindgren, G. (ed.),Growth as a mirror of conditions in society, Stockholm, Stockholm InstituteEducation Press, 1990, pp. 9-70; Steckel, R.H., “Stature and the standard of living”,Journal of Economic Literature, No. 33, 1995, pp. 1903-1940; Bodszar, E., Susanne,Ch. (eds.), Secular growth changes in Europe, Budapest, Eotvos University Press,1998.
  • [5] Barona, J.L., “Defining patterns of normality in children’s health 1914-1945”,Bergen, Bergen Workshop History of Medicine and Health, 2011.
  • [6] Komlos, J. “Anthropometric history: an overview of a quarter century of research”,Anthropologischer Anzeiger, No. 67, 2009, pp. 341-356; Steckel, R.H., “Heights andhuman welfare: Recent developments and new directions”, Explorations in EconomicHistory, No. 46, 2009, pp. 1-23.
  • [7] Caballero, B., Popkin, B.M. (eds.), The Nutrition Transition: Diet and Disease in theDeveloping World, London, Academic Press, 2002; Popkin, 2008.
  • [8] One of the first researches on the evolution of height among Europeans based onmilitary records and national statistics was Chamla, M.C., “L’accroissement de lastature en France de 1880 a 1960; comparaison avec les pays d’Europe occidentale”,Bulletins et Memoires de la Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris, No. 6, 1964, pp. 201278.
  • [9] Komlos, 2009, pp. 341-356; Steckel, 2009, pp. 1-23.
  • [10] Komlos, J. (ed.), The biological standard of living on three continental. Furtherexplorations in anthropometric history, Oxford, Westview Press, 1995; Komlos, J.,Baten, J. (eds.), “Recent research in Anthropometric History”, Social ScienceHistory, No. 28, 2004, number 2, special issue, pp. 191-350; Steckel, R.H.,“Biological Measures of the Standard of Living”, Journal of Economic Perspectives,No. 22, 2008, pp. 129-152.
  • [11] Tanner, J.M., A history of the study of human growth, Cambridge, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1981.
  • [12] Pollit, E., Gorman, K., Engle, P., Rivera J., Martorell, R., “Nutrition in early life andthe fulfilment of intellectual potential”, Journal of Nutrition, No. 125, 1995, pp. 1111-1118.
  • [13] Deaton, A., “Height, health, and development”, Journal of Economic Literature,No. 41, 2003, pp. 113-158; Deaton, A., Arora, R., “Life at the top: the benefits ofheight”, Economics and Human Biology, No. 7, 2009, pp. 133-136; Casse, A.,Paxson, Ch., “Stature and Status: Height, Ability, and Labor Market Outcomes”,Journal of Political Economy, No. 116, 2008, pp. 499-532; Casse, A., Paxson, Ch.,“Height, Health and Cognitive Function at Older Ages”, American Economic Review,No. 98, 2008, pp. 463-467.
  • [14] Martinez Carrion, J.M. “El estado nutricional en la Europa contemporanea. Unavision desde la historia antropometrica”, in Bernabeu-Mestre, J., Barona, J.L. (eds.),Nutricion, Salud y Sociedad. Espana y Europa en los siglos XIX y XX, Valencia,PUV/SEC, 2011, pp. 93-132.
  • [15] Christopher Wanjek, Food at work: workplace solutions for malnutrition, obesity andchronic diseases. Geneva, International Labor, Organization, 2005.
  • [16] Steckel, R.H., Rose, J.R. (eds.), The backbone of History. Health andNutrition in theWesternHemisfere, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • [17] Harris, B., “Anthropometric History, gender and the measurement of well-being”, inHarris, B., Galvez, L., Machado, H. (eds.), Gender and Well-Being in Europe.
  • [18] Historical and contemporary perspectives, Farnham, Asghate, 2009, pp. 59-84;Guntupalli, A., Baten, J., “Measuring gender well-being with biological welfareindicators”, in Harris, B., Galvez, L., Machado, H. (eds.), Gender and Well-Being inEurope. Historical and contemporary perspectives, Farnham, Asghate, 2009, pp. 4358.
  • [19] Barona, J.L. The Problem of Nutrition, Brussels, P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2010; Rebato, E.,“Crecimiento: una vision desde la Antropologia Fisica”, Revista Espanola deAntropologiaFisica, No. 31, 2010, pp. 85-110.
  • [20] The German case is described in Komlos, J., Kriwy, P., “Social Status and AdultHeights in the two Germanies”, Annals of Human Biology, No. 29, 2002, pp. 641-648and Komlos, J., “Height and social status in 18th century Germany”, Journal ofInterdisciplinary History, No. 20, 1990, pp. 607-21; Alter, G., Neven, M., Oris, M.,“Stature in Transition: A Micro-Level Study from Nineteenth-Century Belgium”,Social Science History, No. 28, 2004, pp. 231-47.
  • [21] Floud, R.C., Watcher, K.W., Roderick, C., “Poverty and physical stature”, SocialScience History, No. 6, 1982, pp. 422-452; Roderick, C., Floud, R.C., Watcher,K.W., Gregory, A.S., Height, health and history: Nutritional status in Britain, 17501980, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • [22] Komlos, 1990, p. 621; Komlos, J., Baten, J. (eds.), The Biological Standard of Livingin Comparative Perspective, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 1998.
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