Why are the Dutch so tall ?

Why are the Dutch so tall ?

The Dutch are among the tallest people in the world. Less well known is that just over 150 years ago they were among the shortest. So what brought about this change?

When visiting the Netherlands you will quickly come across people that are over 200 cm tall who stand out above everyone around them. With an average height of about 185 cm (5.9 ft) for men, and 168 cm (5.5 ft) for a woman it is clear that this is the place to look for houses with tall doorways and shoe stores that have a selection of extra large sizes.

What happened ?

For most of the 18th century, the Dutch used to be among Europe’s shortest people. Military conscription records show that Dutch males in the 1850’s averaged less than 165 cm. Less than the Americans, Germans, Swedes and Danish of the same time. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that they finally beat the countries around them and grew to be the tallest.

From the 1850’s on a steady rise in average height sets in, which only ends at the end of the 20th century. Each generation was taller than the one that came before it. There are plenty of theory’s that attempt to explain the Dutch remarkable period of prolonged growth. Some more plausible than others.

Environment & Economics

During the industrial revolution, many rural Dutch moved into the cities. These were crowded places, with poor sanitation and medical facilities. Most people were paid badly and worked long hours from an early age. Many families could barely afford to eat and disease was common. There was a large gap between the rich and poor. A higher income meant better food, access to doctors and generally a longer, healthier life.

Diseases have an enormous influence on a the growth of a child and in 19th-century Holland diarrhea and measles were common illnesses. Access to plentiful food (nutrition) can offset this, but, of course, these were equally limited.

At the beginning of the 20th-century average incomes start to rise, housing improves as does access to food and medicine. This is also when the growth spurt of the Dutch really starts to take off. Incomes continue to rise for most of the 20th century.

The Netherlands continues to have one of the smallest gaps between high and low incomes in the world. In fact, except for a small percentage of high-income earners at the top, most Dutch have more or less the same income and savings.[8]


The early ancestors of the Dutch and those of the countries that surround them tended to be tall. In fact taller than the city dwellers that they eventually became. Looked at it this way, the potential for growth was always there, it was just held back by environmental factors.


The Netherlands itself produces large amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are available at any supermarket. Most modern Dutch eat a lot of bread, cheese and meats and consume a lot of dairy products. As a result, the Dutch diet is full of these products, even more so than that of their European neighbors. This might explain why they grew taller than the countries surrounding them.

Natural selection

Tall people in the Netherlands tend to get married sooner, get promoted quicker and earn higher wages throughout their lives. This is true for both men and woman. Tall women tend to study and work until a later age, but once they start having children they will have more children than the national average.

This is quite possibly a cultural thing as in the USA, for example, taller people tend to have fewer children than the average.

Divorce is also quite common in the Netherlands, so it has been suggested that tall people have the ability to start more than one family in their lifetimes.

The debate on the how and why hasn’t quite settled, and continues to be an area of research. But the popular theory that the Dutch grew to be so tall was to survive the floodings plaguing the lowlands can be safely put to rest. Their tallness only came about very recently. For most of recent history, they had to swim to safety just like everyone else.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height
  2. http://www.cbs.nl/nl-NL/menu/themas/gezondheid-welzijn/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2012/2012-3746-wm.htm
  3. http://www.randalolson.com/2014/06/23/why-the-dutch-are-so-tall/
  4. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33160072
  5. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heres-why-dutch-are-so-tall-180954930/?no-ist
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/08/scientists-try-to-answer-why-dutch-people-are-so-tall
  7. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/04/05/the-height-gap
  8. http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/menu/themas/inkomen-bestedingen/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2014/2014-036-pb.htm

Image: Measuring Tape by Jamie