America used to be the tallest country in the world.

From the days of the Founding Fathers through the Industrial Revolution and two world wars, Americans literally towered over people of other nations.
But America's predominance in height has faded. Americans reached a height plateau after World War II, gradually falling behind nations around the world.

By the time the first baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s, most northern and western European countries had caught up with and surpassed the U.S. Young adults in Japan and other prosperous Asian countries now stand nearly as tall as Americans. In the Netherlands, the tallest country in the world, the typical man now measures 6 feet, a good 2 inches more than his average American counterpart.

Does it really matter? Does being taller give the Dutch any advantage over, say, the Chinese (men, 5 feet, 4.9 inches; women, 5 feet, 0.8 inches) or the Brazilians (men, 5 feet, 6.5 inches; women, 5 feet, 3 inches)?

Many economists would argue that it does matter, because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population's well-being. The same things that make someone tall - a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood - also are beneficial in health, wealth and longevity. Maybe even intelligence.

That makes height a good indicator for economists who are interested in measuring how well a nation provides for its citizens during their growing years.

"This is the part of the society that usually eludes economists, because economists are usually thinking about income. And this is the part of the society that doesn't earn an income," said John Komlos, an economic historian at the University of Munich who has spent the last quarter- century compiling data on the heights of nations.

Not surprisingly, rich countries tend to be taller simply because they have more resources to spend on feeding and caring for their children. But wealth doesn't necessarily guarantee that a society will give its children what they need to thrive.

In the Czech Republic, per-capita income is barely half of what it is in the U.S. Even so, Czechs are taller than Americans. So are Belgians, who collect 84 percent as much income as Americans.

Height differences translate into real benefits. A number of studies have shown that disease and malnutrition early in life - the same things that limit a person's height - increase a person's chances of developing heart disease and other life- shortening conditions later on.

International statistics bear it out. Life expectancy in the Netherlands is 79.11 years; in Sweden, it's 80.63. America's life expectancy of 78.00 years puts it in somewhat shorter company, just above Cyprus and a few notches below Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Obviously, America is not doing badly. It's not at the level of developing nations," Komlos said. "But it's also not doing as well as it could."
His latest research paper, published in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly, suggests the blame may lie with America's poor diet and its expensive, inequitable health-care system.

"American children might consume more meals prepared outside of the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients," wrote Komlos and co-author Benjamin Lauderdale of Prince ton University. "Furthermore, the European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net including universal health care coverage."

It is unlikely that Komlos will ever find one simple factor to explain why Americans have fallen behind other rich countries. In all likelihood, it is caused by a combination of things - a little bit health care, some diet, a sprinkling of economic inequality.

"In some ways, it gets to the fundamentals of the American society, namely what ... are the shortcomings of that (American) ideology?" Komlos said. "I would argue that to take good care of its children is not part of that ideology."