Experts Blame Obesity for Early Puberty in Today’s Young Girl
Too Grown, Too Soon
While first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity has drawn national attention to the links between childhood weight and heart disease, diabetes and cancer in adults, a more immediate effect noticed by doctors and nutritionists hasn’t garnered quite as much publicity.
The higher percentage of body fat found in girls today is considered to be the leading cause of girls entering puberty earlier than ever before.
“Fat is a hormonally active substance,” said Dr. Larry Deeb, a Tallahassee pediatric endocrinologist for more than 30 years. “People think it (fat) just lays there on the body” but it isn’t a harmless material.
In the early 1900s, “a mother would have had a stroke” if her 9-year-old daughter had started menstruating, Deeb said. Over time, the average age of menstruation dropped from 18 to about 12 and then stayed constant from the 1940s to the 1980s, when it began to creep down again.
As the average age dropped, the standard became weight-related, with the average girl starting menstruation at about 100 pounds. The newest and most current standard for the onset of puberty is between 9 and 12 years old.
Some evidence suggests boys also are starting the years-long process of puberty at an earlier age, but they don’t seem to move through the process as quickly as girls. Boys also do not seem to be as affected by weight, and at least one recent study suggests they may react in completely opposite ways — the onset of puberty may be slowed in overweight boys.
Deeb believes the hormones responsible for triggering puberty in girls are more susceptible to the effects of fat than those responsible for the same maturation in boys.
The body is not used to the quantity of carbohydrates, fats and proteins American children eat every day, said Barbara Goldstein, a WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program nutrition educator at the Leon County Health Department. Goldstein, who works with many pregnant teenagers, puts the blame for the earlier onset of puberty squarely on the shoulders of obesity.
Goldstein suspects some of her 15-year-old clients may be the societal results of early physical maturity, and there is some evidence to back up that suspicion by showing a link between the early onset of puberty and earlier sexual activity. Some studies also indicate girls are more sexually promiscuous when they develop earlier than their peers.
More documented research is needed before Deeb will speculate whether behavioral risks are greater among those who begin puberty earlier. “We will only know the answer to this (and also to whether these girls will have a higher rate of breast cancer) when they are all grown,” he said. “We would only be speculating.”
Deeb does, however, point out what every parent knows — physical maturity does not guarantee emotional maturity. “Being mature just makes you mature, it doesn’t mean you act mature,” he said.
Parents need to understand the difference between the early onset of puberty, which could mean the beginning of breast development or the growth of pubic hair, and actual “early puberty,” which is a rare medical condition called “Precocious Puberty,” Tallahassee pediatrician Dr. Barbara Demby Abrams said. Precocious Puberty is full-blown puberty in a child under 8 and is usually caused by the child’s internal clock malfunctioning. Victims are usually treated to make puberty stop until a more appropriate age and, in Tallahassee, these children are usually referred to Deeb, who specializes in their treatment.
While Deeb can’t help much if a parent walks into his office with a 140-pound 7-year-old beginning to show the early signs of puberty, he suggests avoiding that possibility by starting kids early on a healthy diet and exercise. “There is not an American alive who does not know what healthy eating is,” he said. “Certainly the right answer from the get-go is to be active and run and play.”
Goldstein suggests checking out websites like choosemyplate.gov, where the USDA nutrition guide can be found as well as other nutritional information, or Obama’s letsmove.gov, where parents can find more information on raising healthy children.