The Link Between Childhood Obesity and Early Puberty


Fast foodAmerican girls are reaching puberty at significantly younger ages than their mothers and grandmothers. For Caucasian girls in the United States, the average age at which puberty begins has been declining steadily for decades. Notably, however, the most dramatic decrease occurred between 1997 and 2011 and consisted of girls entering puberty three-to-four month younger they had in the 1960’s. Girls from other ethnicities are also entering puberty at earlier ages, but at less dramatic rates.

What’s Going On With Girls?

In Early Puberty: The New Normal?, Kathleen Barnes examines this important topic for Natural Awakenings magazine. The author of numerous books about natural health, Barnes begins by blaming burgers, fries, and soda. These and other unhealthy food choices are boosting girls’ Body Mass Index (BMI), a measurement that Dr. Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, calls “the overwhelmingly predominant factor in the age at which a girl reaches puberty”.

Barnes also cites the “toxic soup” of chemicals that American girls unknowingly ingest. For example, the antibiotics in commercial meat and dairy products could affect the body’s microbiome, the microorganism colony in the digestive tract. This can lead to obesity and, in turn, contribute to the early onset of puberty. Hormone-disrupting chemicals in everything from clothing and carpets to plastic and personal care products are also to blame. These endocrine disruptors cause the body to produce excess amounts of estrogen and, in turn, can trigger puberty at an earlier age.

The Stress Monster

Psychosocial factors may also affect when puberty begins. Girls who grow up in stressful environments secrete greater amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone that’s been directly related to abdominal fat in numerous studies. Stress is also linked to overeating and obesity. For American girls growing up in 2015, “the stress monster” that Barnes describes includes child or sexual abuse, low emotional investment from parents, and family relationships characterized by instability or strife.

A “clean diet” is one of the best strategies to avoid childhood obesity, but some parents may struggle to help their girls make healthy food choices. As a healthcare provider, how do you help parents help their kids?

Image Credit: © Syda Productions/Dollar Photo Club

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