Why are the Dutch so tall?

When I visited Salt Lake City earlier this year, I was once again reminded that the Dutch are the tallest people on earth. At 1.75m (5’9″), I’m a bit above average height for a woman in the Netherlands, but in the US I was taller than most men and women. Here in the Netherlands, almost all of my male friends and some of my female friends are over 6′ tall. At 6’5″, my husband is considered to be tall, but not unusually so.

This Youtube video explains that in the past 150 years, Dutch men have gained 20 cm (8″) in height on average, a lot more than American men, who only gained about 6 cm (2-3″).

So why are the Dutch so tall? In the video, one scientist suggests that the Dutch had more catching up to do; that their genetic disposition allowed them to be taller than they actually were 150 years ago. However, that does not explain my own findings.

My father’s family is from Winterswijk, a village in the Achterhoek region of Gelderland. Between 1840 and 1920, about 6,000 people emigrated from that area. Most of them settled in the United States, the majority in Clymer, Chautauqua county, New York and in the villages of Cedar Grove and Oostburg in Sheboygan county, Wisconsin.

In 1997, I visited these three Dutch settlements. Ethnically, these people were Dutch. Many current residents of these towns were third to fifth generation Americans, but still 100% Dutch. And guess what? They were a lot shorter than their Dutch cousins from the villages their ancestors left in the nineteenth century. Again, I was one of the taller people there, taller than almost all women and taller than most men. I estimate that the people were at least 10cm or 4″ shorter on average than their Dutch cousins.

Yvette Hoitink between Augusta and Lewis Risseeuw, two Americans of 100% Dutch descent, in 1997. Credits: Mary Risseeuw (used with permission)

Yvette Hoitink between Augusta and Lewis Risseeuw, 1997. Credits: Mary Risseeuw (used with permission).

This photo shows me between Augusta and Lewis Risseeuw, two Americans of 100% Dutch descent who lived in Sheboygan county, Wisconsin. Augusta was my fifth cousin twice removed. DNA testing showed we still share autosomal DNA.

Genetically, there should be no difference between the Dutch people and their American cousins, since their ancestors came from the same villages. So how come that the Dutch Americans are so much shorter than their Dutch cousins?

Another explanation suggested in the video is that the Dutch have a high dairy diet, since we drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of cheese. But Wisconsinites are cheeseheads too, so that doesn’t seem to explain it either.

Could it be lifestyle? McDonalds versus Bakker Bart? Could it be that we are fitter because we cycle and walk more? Or could it be that Dutch Americans descend from the poorest people, who saw no other option than to emigrate, and that people with the “tall genes” were more likely to succeed and did not have to emigrate?  I do not have the answer but find it intriguing.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She has been doing genealogy for almost 25 years. Her expertise is helping people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.

Comments

  1. Dave Simmer says

    This is very interesting. My grandfather was short and from the Netherlands. I am only 5′ – 9″, but my son is 6′ – 4″. We are still short compared to the Dutch. Now! I have to joke a little. You are all so tall because your land is so flat and much under sea level, you have to be tall to see any distance. LOL.

    • Virgil Hoftiezer says

      And they have to be tall to survive (i.e. keep their heads above water), when the dykes leak. It is natural selection. Only the tallest people survive and reproduce.

      • You could also argue that we don’t need to be that tall, because even a hobbit can spot food for miles around because our land is so flat!

        • Pieter Ferreira says

          I think I know the reason why Americans are so short. In the movies and on tv you can see when there is a foreign actor or actress in the movie they always tower above the Americans. Reason number one FLUORIDE in the water. FLUORIDE is banned in all European countries. Fluoride cause a deficiency in ZINC.
          Reason nr 2 SOY is now a staple in the american diet. Nothing causes a deficiency in ZINC like SOY. Look up the function of ZINC. ZINC makes you GROW. Nothing can grow without ZINC! In Asian countries SOY is the staple food. Everybody knows how short the Asians are!

  2. Gayel Knott says

    The explanation I heard is that it was a result of cultural selection — people in The Netherlands just like tall. Personally, I’m only 1/8th Dutch, but I like tall — I’m 5’10” and a grandmother.

  3. Karen Vanthoff says

    My great grandfather emigrated to Western New York from Hoorn about 1855. I have a wedding picture of him in 1864 and he does not appear very tall. My grandfather was only about 5′ 6″ and my dad’s nickname was “Shorty” at about 5′ 4″. I have been to Holland a number of times and visited the open air museum in Arnhem once. I remember visiting some of the old reconstructed homes and saw the areas the families slept built into a wall. I thought at the time that these people were VERY short! They sure must have grown a lot in the past several centuries!

  4. Barbara Andersen says

    I have to disagree that the Americans of Dutch descent are short. My grandfather came from Oud-Beijerland in 1887. I don’t know how tall he was, but in all pictures of him he is the tallest in the group. My mother born in 1909, with two Dutch parents, was 5’9″. That was very tall for a woman of that generation. I am 5’10’, and my son is 6’7″. I have a male cousin at least 6’6″. I always accredit it to the Dutch genes.

    • Barbara Andersen says

      Oh, yes, and my 13 year old grandson is 5’11” and wears a men’s shoe size of 14. My 9 year old granddaughter wears a women’s shoe size of 10. She towers above her classmates as well.

    • I did not mean to imply that all Dutch Americans are short, but I think the average height is significantly lower than in the Netherlands. And of course, we have short people too 🙂

      • Tim Sikkink says

        My great grandparents came from Winterswijk Kotten. Strictly anectdotal but my sisters, cousins, and myself are all tall. I’m 6’4 and my male cousins are 6’5 to 6’7 (with the exception of little Jimmy who is only 5’11). Sisters are 5’9 to 6’0. What is strange is that none of my grandparents were exceptionally tall. Thank you for the interesting article.

      • Some anecdotal evidence.
        Fluoride in the water did not cause me to be short. I’m 5’9” (female and my father was 6’2”) and I was given fluoride tablets all my childhood because we were drinking tank water only.
        The only effect on me is that I have perfect teeth with no holes. Very strong enamel and my dentist has recently stopped the fluoride paste usually done during a checkup. I’m 60 years old.
        My younger sibling did not complete the fluoride treatment and their teeth enamel is much softer resulting in a number of holes over the years.

        The other behavioural difference between us is that they regularly drink carbonated soft drinks (Diet Coke) and I do not.

  5. Sheryl Mulder says

    I live in West Michigan, an area with many very tall Dutch descendants. My husband is 6’4″ and has nephews 6’10”. Many came from Friesland and Gronigen between 1850’s to early 1900’s.

  6. Virgil Hoftiezer says

    Very interesting. I grew up in a Dutch community and while my paternal grandfather was tall (6 feet plus), my grandmother and her family were all short and stout. I thought it might be due to where in the Netherlands the families originated. Is there any information that compares the height of people from various communities in the Netherlands? If my ancestors had not emigrated, I am sure that my maternal and paternal Dutch families would never have met. Only when they came to the USA (around 1847 to 1860 or so) and settled in Alto, Wisconsin did they meet and blended the tall genes with the short genes.

  7. John Wiers says

    I am a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian church and am of 100% Dutch ancestry.

    I am very familiar with the Dutch immigrant culture in Sheboygan County, WI, since we have churches in Oostburg, Cedar Grove, and Sheboygan in which the majority of the members are of Dutch ancestry and I am a part of the same presbytery as those churches. I think that the answer to shorter people in Sheboygan County may be due to the fact that not only Gelderlanders, but many Zeelanders also settled there. in fact it is due to the Zeelander, Pieter Zonne being ordained by the Presbyterian church rather than the Reformed Church that there are a lot of Dutch Presbyterians in Sheboygan County. The Zeelander influence may contribute heavily to the shorter stature..

    I come from the South Chicago and Northwest Indiana area and most of my ancestors were from Groningen, Friesland, and Noord Holland, as is the case with most of the immigrants in those areas with the addition of the Zuid Hollanders who settled the town of South Holland, IL.

    My family is tall and most of the others of Dutch ancestry in the South Chicago–NW Indiana area are tall in addition to those in the West Chicago area. The latter are mostly of Groninger descent, first settling in the so-called Groninger Hoek on the near west side of Chicago.

    I’m not sure if the Zeelander blood is the complete answer to the question of shorter people in Sheboygan County, WI, but I, too, have noticed that they are not as tall. They also don’t seem to be as blond as others of Dutch ancestry and I know that this is definitely due at least partially to the Zeelander influence. Certainly there were a lot of Gelderlanders in Sheboygan County–all the “ink” names bear that out, but whenever you throw the “mas”, “stras”, and “gas” into the mix here in the US, you get tall here as well, 🙂

    BTW– my mom’s maiden name was Bultema– the family was from UIthuizen, Groningen, and her grandmother was a Broeksema from Ulrum, Groningen, although the family was originally from Friesland and spelled the name from Broeksma to Broeksema, I guess adding the extra e in classical Groninger fashion when they moved to Ulrum.

    • Interesting to hear that the Chicago Dutch are taller than the Sheboygan Dutch. I agree with you that the Zeelanders might help to bring the average height down. Many Zeelanders came from areas that had a lot of Huguenot settlers in the 17th century. French people are on average much shorter than Dutch people, which may have contributed to the shorter height of the Zeelanders.
      In 1997, I also visited Clymer, New York, where all the people descend from emigrants from Winterswijk, Gelderland. They were much shorter than their cousins who stayed in Winterswijk.

  8. That’s fascinating! It’s part of a larger mystery that I don’t believe science has a confident answer for, yet. Why has human height, on average, increased in the last century or so? It seems that every answer (diet, artificial light) that someone comes up with, you can always point to a population where that is contradicted.

    But you have identified an excellent study population since you can identify people with the same genes living on different continents. My own Winterswijker genes are no longer “pure” 🙂 and I have Zeelanders on another line, as well, so I have no good data to add.

  9. John Hendrickson says

    Were there any tall Germans that might have been of Dutch descent. My 3rd great-grandfather, born in 1780 in Pennsylvania, was 6’7″. My 2nd great-grandfather, a son, was 6’7″ also, and his brother 7’1″. They were not skinny but large and powerful, over 250 pounds, some over 300 pounds. The family lore says they were Dutch Quaker, but there is some information they may have come to Philadelphia from Germany as Mennonites. Is there any information that would suggest where in Holland or Germany they may have come from, given their height and size?

    • They could have been “Pennsylvania Dutch”, who were Deutsch (German word for German) rather than Dutch. I believe many came from the Rhineland-Palatinate. I am not familiar enough with the different German regions to know where the tallest Germans lived.

  10. Karla Grebe says

    We are from South Africa and have Dutch, German and French Huguenot Ancestors; Grebe and Rossouw. There are many tall men on the Rossouw side. I would love to find out more about our European ancestors!

    Is it an urban legend that the Dutch military did not have uniforms for taller men during the World Wars and therefore more of the taller men and tall genes survived?

    • That is an urban legend, yes. The Netherlands was neutral in World War I, so had few casualties among tall or short men. In World War II, I think the height requirement was anyone under 2 meters (6’7″) so there were not many men exempt for height.

  11. Mary Drexler says

    The height question has always fascinated me. My mother is 2nd and 3rd generation Dutch (100%).
    My sister and I are not tall. In fact we are both small. But all my uncles and cousins on my mom’s side are very tall. The girls are nearly six feet. As little girls, the first time we saw my uncles shoe laying on the floor at grandmas, we laughed hysterically. We had never seen a shoe that big. The tall genes must have come through, however. My sister’s son is 6 feet 5 inches.

  12. Thomas van dijk says

    This is an interesting article but I wouldn’t say the Dutch are tallest, I am Dutch myself from Leiden. There is a high proportion that are tall but also high proportion that is average height and smaller in my country but that is because on average Dutch people live in closer proximity as compared to the average American which allows tall people to mingle with other tall people which produces more taller people. So there is taller people assembled in the bigger cities and towns around those cities which is visited by millions of tourist each year which gives the stereotypical impression that all Dutch people are tall. We are considered the tallest nation in the world, but not I would not say ethnically as there are ethnic groups in the world who are taller than the average Dutch such as Dinkas from Sudan, the massai from Kenia, Tanzania the Wolof’s from Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, the Hausas and Akans from ivory coast and Ghana who tall as well but these are groups that live in multiple countries which its harder to measure. I am 6 ft. 5 tall and in Holland we have a lot of immigrant groups but most of them Moroccans, Chinese, Turkish, Indonesians to not come close to the tall heights seen in public the only groups are that are on the same height or even taller are some people from Suriname, curacao and other respective African countries which are multiple but I cannot name them all as they are very small minority as compared to nationalities I mentioned before.

    And its partially better nutrition we Dutch like the scientific part of nutrition in what is good for you and what isn’t we have a lot of programmes on TV that discusses these topics which helps a lot especially parents who in advance know what nutrition to give their children to grow strong and tall. And in general we love food from all over the world which brings in a variety of vitamins, calcium, minerals and irons.

  13. These are interesting observations. Have you visited any Dutch-dominant towns in Canada, Australia, or other countries to see if it’s just a matter of Americans being shorter? Also, I’m beginning to believe that the height discrepancy between the Netherlands and many other countries is largely due to the environment (which includes diet). I’ve visited the Netherlands many time, and I find that even the non-native descendants of recent immigrants are exceptionally tall – such first-generation Turks and such… it’s quite the puzzle

    • I have not been to Dutch towns in other countries; that would be interesting. Good observation about the recent immigrants. My son has several classmates from different ethnic backgrounds and in general, they are about as tall as the native Dutch kids. Must be all the cheese 🙂

  14. Interesting topic. But I think you got the numbers wrong. According to the most reliable height survey, average height of Americans are 175.7 cm (5’9) for men and 161.8 cm (5’3.5) for women respectively on 2014 CDC report (measured height). Given your height (5’9) you are well above the height of women but barely average for men, definitely not “taller than most men” as you claimed.

    The most recent height data for people in Netherlands, according to CBS on 2013, is 180.8 cm (5’11.2) for men and 167.5 cm (5’6) for women, which make a different of about 5-6 cm, not 4 inches or 10 cm (not sure if it is by survey or measurement).

    If we only focus on the younger groups, the tallest cohort in Netherlands will be 182.8 (6′) & 169.5 cm (5’6.7) respectively; and the White American from age 20-39 will be 178.2 (5’10.2) and 165 (5’5 respectively). It will make the difference less than 5cm. While it is no way to find out how much sample in Dutch’s survey have non European backgrounds, the percentage are still less than the non-whites in US, and I don’t think the difference will be a lot more than 6 cm.

    Anyway thanks Yvette you have prompt my an interest in this area. You are correct to mention that height can be influenced by a lot of factors, and there is no guarantee that the people from the same origin will have the same height (even though from my experience, white American in the midwest, with higher percentage of German/Scandinavians/Dutch are in general taller than those in the Northeast (with higher percentage from Southern Europe) We should be careful not attribute solely to a single factor such as genetics, climate, diet, lifestyle (the latter two are more about weight!), and definitely don’t be those idiots in media to take this as a propaganda to promote health care agendas.

  15. Ammar Ahmad Kirmani says

    Are you sure, you are taller than most american men? I am 181-182 cm around 5’11” 5′ 11 1/2″ solid. I lived in Amsterdam in 2006 and currently live in Ohio. Average american man is bit taller than 5’9″ in my opinion. Definitely Dutch are tallest in civilized world but hardly any taller on average than me when I was there. I have seen very tall dutch men in small cities, amsteveen etc but there were a lot of short ones also. Not sure even dutch heights has shoes and hair influence.

    • I was taller than most American men I met during my two trips to the US as an adult. Being a genealogist, I did mostly meet older men, so that may have influenced my “sample”.

  16. Interestingly my father’s family immigrated from Haarlem to South Africa in 1714. That is 304 years ago! My father is 6’4, my mom 5’11, I (the daughter) is 6’2.5, my brothers are 6’3-4 and my 10 year old son is already 5’3 and height calculations predict that my son will be 6’6 to 6’7 once he is an adult.

  17. tallwestman says

    I heard of Dutch high schooler are super tall nowadays. Those Dutch kids who were born after 2000, are over than 190 cm almost.

  18. Any thought about the unfortunate nazi breeding program in this? Also I cannot believe all is about genes, for the simple reason that if you were to be twins and born from a lady in her late thirty you may end up shorter simply because of the quality and amount of food. I have a few examples around me where in the same family (therefore same genetic content) the variation in height could be quite significant. I would be curious to see the variation on these average data for the “Dutch” in time to see if there has been a sudden change at some generation. Any info or pointer will be appreciated.

    • The nazi breeding program did not take place in the Netherlands, as far as I know. I have never come across a story about this in the Netherlands, so it would not have had any effect on the average height.

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