Poor diet based on cheap obesity-inducing junk food is viewed as the primary culprit © Getty Images / Mike Kemp

British five-year-olds who grew up in the era of austerity are shorter than their peers in other developed nations by as much as 7cm (2.76in), according to data from the Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factor Collaboration published by The Times on Tuesday.

Since 1985, when British boys and girls both ranked 69 for average height at five years out of 200 listed countries, their ranking has plummeted dramatically – to 102 for boys and 96 for girls, putting them behind countries as diverse as Canada, Kyrgyzstan, and Cuba.

Comparing the numbers to data on 19-year-olds, Professor Tim Cole of University College London’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health suggested to The Times that growing up in the 2010s “period of austerity” was what “clobbered the height of children in the UK.” The height of British five-year-olds peaked in 2011 at 112.8cm (44.4in) and has been falling ever since, the statistics show.

Because height is affected not just by quality and quantity of food but also stress, poverty, illness, and even sleep quality, Cole argued it is a uniquely “sensitive” indicator of living conditions. “It’s quite clear we are falling behind, relative to Europe,” he said.

“In modern Britain, the way we eat is one of the clearest markers of inequality,” former UK government food adviser Henry Dimbleby told The Times, pointing out that “children in the poorest areas of England are both fatter and significantly shorter than those in the richest areas at age ten to eleven.”

Family doctors in low-income areas have reported an “extraordinary” surge in the kind of nutritional-deficiency-borne diseases prevalent during Victorian times, Dimbleby explained. According to NHS data, 700 children are admitted to English hospitals every year with rickets, scurvy, or other forms of malnutrition, while nutrition charity The Food Foundation has found higher rates of type 2 diabetes and dental decay as well as obesity in poorer children.

A diet of cheap junk food has the peculiar quality that it can make you simultaneously overweight and undernourished.

It is not just European countries like the Netherlands and Lithuania which outperform Britain. According to the study, China and North Korea both raise taller five-year-olds than the UK. Even five-year-olds in Libya – born and raised after the NATO bombing campaign that helped to overthrow their government and turn the country into a failed state – are taller (boys) or as tall (girls) compared to their British counterparts.

Austerity has been linked to a host of socioeconomic problems in the UK, from soaring inequality to declining educational achievement. While supporters argue the program enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was necessary to rescue a floundering economy, critics have countered that the damage done outweighs any benefits. (RT)