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Background: Evidence from studies conducted in nutritionally deprived children in low- and middle-income countries (LIMC) in past decades showed little or no population-level catch-up in linear growth (mostly defined as reductions in the absolute height deficit) after 2 years of age. Recent studies, however, have reported population-level catch-up growth in children, defined as positive changes in mean height-for-age z-scores (HAZ). The aim of this paper was to assess whether population-level catch-up in linear growth is found when height-for-age difference (HAD: child’s height compared to standard, expressed in centimeters) is used instead of HAZ. Our premise is that HAZ is inappropriate to measure changes in linear growth over time because they are constructed using standard deviations from cross-sectional data.

Methods: We compare changes in growth in populations of children between 2 and 5 years using HAD vs. HAZ using cross-sectional data from 6 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and longitudinal data from the Young Lives and the Consortium on Health-Orientated Research in Transitional Societies (COHORTS) studies.

Results: Using HAD, we find not only an absence of population-level catch-up in linear growth, but a continued deterioration reflected in a decrease in mean HAD between 2 and 5 years; by contrast, HAZ shows either no change (DHS surveys) or an improvement in mean HAZ (some of the longitudinal data). Population-level growth velocity was also lower than expected (based on standards) in all four Young Lives data sets, confirming the absence of catch-up growth in height.

Discussion: We show no evidence of population-level catch-up in linear growth in children between 2 to 5 years of age when using HAD (a measure more appropriate than HAZ to document changes as populations of children age), but a continued deterioration reflected in a decrease in mean HAD.

Conclusions: The continued widening of the absolute height deficit after 2 years of age does not challenge the critical importance of investing in improving nutrition during the first 1000 days (i.e., from conception to 2 years of age), but raises a number of research questions including how to prevent continued deterioration and what is the potential of children to benefit from nutrition interventions after 2 years of age. Preventing, rather than reversing linear growth retardation remains the priority for reducing the global burden of malnutritionworldwide.

APA Citation

Leroy, J. L., Ruel, M., Habicht, J.-P., & Frongillo Jr., E. A. (n.d.). Using Height-For-Age Differences (HAD) Instead of Height-For-Age Z-Scores (HAZ) for the Meaningful Measurement of Population-Level Catch-Up in Linear Growth in Children Less Than 5 Years of Age. BMC Pediatrics, 15(145).


© 2015 Leroy et al. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.