Women in the rest of Europe start to look down on the British female

It's the Alice in Wonderland effect. New research has shown that British women are shrinking in height compared with the rest of Europe.

British women under 30 years old now have the smallest average height in Europe, according to a report on health and food in the 21st century by the Henley Centre, a marketing consultancy.

While British women aged 45 to 59 can stand eye-to-eye with women from Ireland and Belgium, younger British women are now at least two centimetres shorter than their European counterparts.

A rise in living standards, better eating habits and a demand for nutritious foods has led to increases in the size of the average European, with younger women being at least one centimetre taller than their mothers.

But the research suggests that the "shrink" factor reflects lower living standards in Britain. The British Nutrition Foundation said the findings showed that the Government needed to do more to help people eat healthily.

"The Government needs to offer more practical help. It is fine telling people to eat fresh fruit and vegetables but many people can't afford it," said a spokesman for the foundation. "The Government should be subsidising or giving free fruit and vegetables to people on low incomes," she said.

The report, "A Taste of the 21st Century", commissioned by Novartis, the multinational pharmaceutical company, shows that the average height of a woman in Britain aged 18 to 29 is 163cm, compared with 165cm for those from Ireland and Belgium. German women are the tallest in Europe, at 168cm, then Austrians and Swedes at 166cm.

Spanish women of middle-age are the smallest in Europe, with an average height of just under 160cm. Younger Spanish women, however, are one centimetre taller than British women.

Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at the Henley Centre and author of the report, said: "In some [women], the growth in size manifests itself in obesity. In the majority, however, the increase in size is a manifestation of how improved living standards have maximised the potential for growth."

The research also showed Britain had one of the biggest weight problems in Europe after Germany and Spain, with 41 per cent of the population classed as overweight or obese.

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