A review of the evidence linking child stunting to economic outcomes

Mark E. McGovern, Aditi Krishna, Victor M. Aguayo, S.V. Subramanian

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To understand the full impact of stunting in childhood it is important to consider the long run effects of undernutrition on the outcomes of adults who were affected in early life. Focusing on the costs of stunting provides a means of evaluating the economic case for investing in childhood nutrition. We review the literature on the association between stunting in childhood and economic outcomes in adulthood. At the national level, we also evaluate the evidence linking stunting to economic growth. Throughout, we consider RCTs, quasi-experimental approaches, and observational studies. Long-run evaluations of two randomized nutrition interventions indicate substantial returns to the programs (a 25% and 46% increase in wages for those affected as children). Cost-benefit analyses of nutrition interventions report a median return of 17.9:1 per child. Assessing the wage premium associated with adult height, we find that a 1 centimeter increase in stature is associated with a 4% increase in wages for men and a 6% increase in wages for women in our preferred set of studies which attempt to address unobserved confounding and measurement error. In contrast, the evidence on the association between economic growth on stunting is mixed. Countries with high rates of stunting, such as those in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, should consider interventions and policies targeted at improving undernutrition as cost-beneficial investments which expand the economic opportunities of their children, better allowing them and their countries to reach their full potential. However, economic growth as a policy will only be effective at reducing the prevalence of stunting when increases in national income are directed at improving the diets of children, addressing gender inequalities and strengthening the status of women, improving sanitation, and reducing poverty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1171–1191
Number of pages21
JournalInternational Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number4
Early online date30 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 01 Aug 2017


  • Stunting
  • Productivity
  • Economic Growth
  • Early Childhood Investment


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