Article Text

Worldwide variation in human growth and the World Health Organization growth standards: a systematic review
  1. Valerie Natale,
  2. Anuradha Rajagopalan
  1. The Forgotten Diseases Research Foundation, Santa Clara, California, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Valerie Natale; vnatale{at}


Objective The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a set of growth curves for use as international standards in children up to age 5. The WHO's position is that all economically advantaged children who were breastfed as infants grow similarly. As a result, a single set of growth charts can be used to judge growth in any child, regardless of race or ethnicity. The goal of this study was to compare mean heights, weights and head circumferences from a variety of studies with the WHO's data.

Design We compared data from the WHO's Multicentre Growth Reference Study (MGRS) with data from studies performed in 55 countries or ethnic groups.

Data sources PubMed, WHO Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition, SciELO, Google Scholar, Textbooks and Ministries of Statistics and Public Health.

Eligibility criteria Large recent studies (1988–2013) of economically advantaged groups, including comparisons with cohorts of breastfed children wherever possible.

Results Height varied somewhat among different national and ethnic groups. Means were generally within 0.5 of an SD of the MGRS means. Weight varied more than height, but the low MGRS means were seen as endorsing slenderness in the midst of an obesity epidemic. The mean head circumference varied widely. In many groups, means were consistently 0.5–1 SD above the MGRS mean. Head size in breastfed children at any age examined was far closer to local norms than to the MGRS means.

Conclusions Height and weight curves may not be optimal fits in all cases. The differences between national or ethnic group head circumference means were large enough that using the WHO charts would put many children at risk for misdiagnosis of macrocephaly or microcephaly. Our findings indicate that the use of a single international standard for head circumference is not justified.

Systematic Review Registration PROSPERO (# CRD42013003675).


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