Why are Vietnamese so short? This question remains stubbornly popular on sites like Quora and Google search, even though the newer generations of Vietnamese are much taller than their parents.
Here, we draw upon a mix of scientific studies and personal experiences with Vietnamese childhood nutrition to answer the question of “Why are Vietnamese so short?”
Scientific Research on Human Height
Human height is a well-studied topic in the scientific literature. The gold-standard for height-studies are “separated twins” studies, where identical twins are separated at birth. These natural experiments allow researchers to disentangle the influences of genetics (which are identical between biological twins) versus childhood upbringing and culture (which are also the same between twins — unless they are separated at birth).
These twins-studies suggest that East Asian and South-East Asian heights are: i) more uniform compared to Europeans; and ii) slightly shorter on average (Jelenkovic et al 2016; Fujiwara, 1999). Futhermore, the studies suggest that these height differences are largely due to heritable factors, i.e., genes.
However, culture and upbringing also play a large role. For instance, one study on Japanese twins (Fujiwara, 1999) provides an interesting contrast: they studied several situations in which one twin was raised in Japan, while the other twin was raised in a Western country. The Western-raised twins were more likely to be taller, despite having identical genetics. Therefore, there is something in the Western diet and/or activities that promotes height, on average.
Availability of High-Quality Protein and Baby Formula
The availability of dairy can have a significant effect on adult heights (Wiley 2005, Grasgruder et al 2016), even after controlling for other variables like ethnicity. In Vietnam, prior to 1990, dairy and baby-formula were difficult to purchase in Vietnam, due to high tariffs and a weak currency.
Instead of Formula, most parents would resort to substitutes like boiled-rice water, mixed with a little sugar. This would have a similar milky-appearance, but lack the beneficial nutrients that promote growth, such as Calcium and complete amino-acids.
Vietnam has made great strides in reducing childhood malnutrition. Studies reveal that incidents of “stunting” due to malnutrition went from a prevelance of 56.5% in 1990 to 30.7% in 2004, reducing an average of 2% per year (Nguyen et al 2007, PDF).
Today, Vietnamese children raised by urban, educated families (a proxy for wealth and social class) may be at higher risk of being over-weight, rather that stunting (Schott et al 2019). Likewise, instead of not being able to purchase Formula, Vietnamese parents are now much more concerned with the purity and origins of their Formula products, rather than accessibility of high-quality protein.
Overall, the perceptions of Vietnamese people’s height are driven by a mix of real heritable factors, as well as the legacy of malnutrition-based “stunting” that occurred with older generations prior to the 2000’s.
New generations are much taller (and fatter) thanks to a continuous national improvement in childhood nutrition. Furthermore, Vietnam’s open and productive economy, with its lower tariffs and free-trade arrangements, now provides Vietnamese families with an incredible variety of baby-foods and dairy products that were fundamentally inaccessible just 30 years ago.
Tiny Tables and Chairs in Vietnam
If you’ve traveled to Vietnam, you’ve likely noticed the prevalence of tiny plastic tables and chairs used by adults — some of which would barely fit a portly Western child. Have the historically-short Vietnamese outgrown their love of tiny furniture?
Read more about the fascinating story behind Vietnam’s tiny chairs and tiny tables and what it teaches us about Vietnam’s economic history.