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Linsanely Tall

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In case you've been living in a cave, here's the skinny on Jeremy Lin. He is the undrafted, underestimated, twice rejected, point guard who has led the hapless, star studded, injury laden New York Knicks to victory after victory for nearly two weeks now. He scored more points than any basketball player in history in his first four NBA starts, and 20 or more points in each of his first six games -- a remarkable achievement.

Lin is, as you may have guessed from his last name, an American of Asian descent, the fourth to play in the NBA since superstar Wat Misaka broke the barrier in 1947. What's more, Lin's a Harvard grad and thus, statistically speaking, three times as likely to be president as he was to make the NBA. Eight Harvard grads have been president; three have made the NBA -- the last one in 1954. Lin is, by all accounts, a modest and unassuming young man, but after lighting up Kobe Bryant for 38 points last week, he is now lighting up both the N.Y. and the national media. It's Linsanity!

Yet with all the hype and hoopla, there is still one aspect of Jeremy Lin that I find most fascinating of all. How did he get so Linsanely tall! At 6 feet 3 inches, he's no giant by NBA standards, but on the streets of Taiwan, where his parents Gie-Ming and Shirley were born, Jeremy Lin would certainly be regarded as one very tall guy.

So how is it that little Jeremy, born in Los Angeles about 10 years after his parents moved the U.S., now towers nine inches over his 5-foot-6-inch parents? No one knows for sure, but researchers are starting to understand more about why so many children are taller than their moms and dads, and the results offer hope to change the world for the better. Height, it turns out, is directly correlated to many positive factors for kids, and statistics show that those who can avoid the dreaded effects of "stunted growth" live longer, do better in school and end up contributing more to the economy as adults.

Dr. Robert Fogel, a Nobel prize-winning researcher from the University of Chicago, is a pioneer in the effort to understand the impact of basic nutrition on the human family, and his book, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, is essential reading for anyone interested in economics, demography, history, and health care policy. Fogel points out that throughout most of human history -- some 50-100,000 years -- chronic malnutrition was the norm. But about three centuries ago, improved farming methods and new productive technology began to dramatically alter the human health landscape. Almost overnight, at least in evolutionary terms, human beings started getting bigger and living longer. In fact, we humans have increased our body size by more than 50 percent and more than doubled our life expectancy in just the last 300 years.

And size and longevity have very positive implications for society as a whole. As Fogel's research demonstrates, taller, healthier humans correlate positively with the acceleration of economic growth and technological change, the reduction of economic inequality, and an improved balance between work and leisure.

But let's get back to Jeremy Lin. At 6 feet 3 inches, young Mr. Lin is about 9 inches taller than his father, who, at 5 feet 6 inches, is about average height for a Taiwanese male. Jeremy's little brother, Joseph, still in college, is close to 6 feet.

So why do the Lin boys tower over their parents?

Data from the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition suggest that Jeremy's mom might be the answer. Based on what's now known about maternal health, it's likely that the nutritional environment Shirley Lin experienced when she arrived in America with her husband had a profound impact on her future children. It should probably come as no surprise to learn that well-nourished moms have healthier kids -- kids who start life ahead of the curve and stay there. China, for example, has seen explosive increases in height in the last few decades as nutrition there has dramatically improved.

But as you might expect, the news is not as good for kids born to mothers living in nutritionally deficient communities. And malnutrition, it turns out, affects more than just height. Dutch researcher Susanne de Rooij looked at more than 700 people born during a traumatic time in Dutch history called the "Hongerwinter," the last grim winter of World War II when the Nazis blockaded food shipments bound for the Netherlands. In the study, 64 subjects who had been exposed to the famine of '44 in the early stages of gestation did worse on cognitive-function tests than those who were exposed later, or not at all, to hunger in utero. Researchers also found that exposure to famine at any stage of the mother's pregnancy resulted in cognitive impairment throughout life.

The implications of all of this are clear for people working to combat hunger in the developing world. Maternal health is the key, we now know, and providing proper nutrition to kids early in life is critical. The first 1,000 days, beginning at conception, can set the course for a healthy and productive life, or they can limit a child's potential for the rest of his days.

So while the rest of the world looks at Jeremy Lin and draws inspiration because a smart Harvard guy is schooling people in the NBA, lets add to that underdog story an even more hopeful possibility. Millions of kids can now "look up" to Jeremy for his accomplishments. If we grasp the opportunity to act on their behalf by getting the proper nutrition into their young lives, maybe more of us can look up to them someday?

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