Short-Statured People and the Environment

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Mara Altman wrote in the NYT that people of shorter stature are better for the planet. Mara claims that the natural resources needed to support a shorter person are less than for a taller person, even though the author acknowledges that shorter people live longer (which may negate the benefits of short stature). Since both genetics and environment determine a person’s height, it was not clear whether the author was advocating that: we manipulate the human genome to breed shorter people, we pair couples to include at least one short partner, or we restrict protein intake with a vegan lifestyle to reduce human stature.

Mara’s commentary steered clear of a discussion of gender (women tend to be smaller than men); lifespan; BMI, or activity on climate change, even though our ability to affect BMI or activity level is much greater than our influence on height, gender, or lifespan.

A bit of background.

Traditionally, diets have been ranked by how well they promote growth. A diet that provides the essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals promotes the most rapid growth of animals and is considered a superior diet. Animal products used in foods are part of a healthy diet because they provide the necessary nutrients for optimal growth. Vegan diets, on the other hand, must be carefully crafted, but they often fail to provide all the required nutrients (i.e., iron, selenium, zinc, calcium, vitamins A, E, D, K, B12, and some essential amino acids).

The Central American diet of beans, rice, and corn, does a pretty good job of providing the essential amino acids by pairing complementary proteins, which provide the necessary building blocks. Unfortunately, other nutrients are often lacking unless they are included in the diet. In developing countries, where the availability of nutritious foods can be limited, a phenomenon known as ‘stunting’ is observed. Stunting is short stature from a lack of crucial nutrients during growth. Progeny of “stunted” individuals, fed a balanced and nutritious diet, would be expected to grow to their full stature. If the cause of short stature is purely genetic, the subsequent generations would also be short regardless of diet quality. Parents who want to raise shorter-stature daughters to develop petite actors or gymnasts might follow a diet that limits protein intake during early growth stages. There are downsides to this approach which may lead to long-term health issues, i.e., brittle bones and anemia.

While agricultural production of livestock produces a greater environmental impact than production of row crops, these products are important for good health. Animal products provide essential amino acids that are needed for the production of proteins in the human body, along with vitamins, minerals, and energy which also contribute to good health. It is important to note that the same agricultural industry that currently provides enough food to feed the 8 billion on the planet is also capable of innovating with new technologies to reduce the environmental impact of food production and processing. Instead of pushing veganism (a less healthy diet) to protect the environment, how about we use our creativity to find ways to minimize the impact of food production and processing?

There are parallels between this issue and the current fight surrounding energy sources, where those most concerned about our future believe that they should be the only ones allowed to have unlimited energy. While they argue that we have a climate catastrophe headed our way, they simultaneously consume all the energy needed to power their many homes, campers, SUVs, yachts, and private aircraft, all the while producing more greenhouse gasses than a small city. In their new world order, we should ‘eat cake’ so long as it does not contain added butter or milk because livestock production is not environmentally friendly. Our cake should be low in sugar because burning sugar cane fields is bad for air quality. We should avoid added salt because we don’t want to blow a gasket due to high blood pressure, and we should not even consider the fat because things that taste good can’t be good for you or the planet. And you should not even dream about adding frosting since it will elevate your BMI and give you a ‘dad bod.’