Girls growing up too soon

GirlsThere’s a sensitive topic that we need to discuss. Many people have begun to notice that girls are reaching puberty at younger and younger ages. In medicine it’s known as precocious puberty. Medical authorities have been noticing the trend for some time, but now as the problem worsens, they are sounding the alarm. In addition to any social and psychological consequences to early puberty, doctors are worried about increased risks of breast cancer and other diseases. The real question is why is this happening, and what can we do about it?  Researchers have determined that, as in so many other health problems, increased consumption of meat and dairy are a big part of the cause.

Girls who experience precocious puberty are at an increased risk for breast cancer in adulthood.  Girls of 7, 8 or 9 years old are often not psychologically equipped to handle puberty. Precocious puberty is associated with a higher risk of psychological problems during adolescence, such as anxiety and depression. Girls who mature earlier are also more likely to take part in risky behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use.

Let’s review some facts and figures to get a handle on the size of the problem. The average age at menarche (first period) in Western countries began declining during the early part of the 20th century. In Europe, in 1830, the average age at menarche was 17. In rural China, the average age at menarche was 17.3 as recently as the 1980s.  In the U.S. in 1900, the average was 14.2. By the 1920s, average age at menarche in the U.S. had fallen to 13.3 and by 2002, it had reached 12.34. Similar trends are occurring in other Western nations. For example, age at menarche in Ireland has declined from 13.52 in 1986 to 12.53 in 2006.

Back in the US, a recent study determined that the percentage of girls entering puberty (defined by breast development) by age 7 has doubled between 1997 and 2010. Today about 16 percent of girls enter puberty by the age of 7, and about 30 percent by the age of 8. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve shortened the childhood of girls by about a year and a half,” says Sandra Steingraber, author of a 2007 report on early puberty for the Breast Cancer Fund. “That’s not good” she said.

Recent studies have shown a strong connection with the current high animal fat, high animal protein, diet popular in America today (often termed SAD for Standard American Diet). In fact, one study showed that those girls eating the most meat had a 75% increased risk of precocious puberty. In contrast, higher vegetable protein intake is associated with later menarche.

Another strong influence on the age of puberty seems to be obesity. In general, obese girls are much more likely to develop early than thin ones. And the number of heavy girls is growing, with 30% of children now overweight or obese. However, those who follow a plant-based diet are thinner, on average. Dr. Louise C. Greenspan, a practicing pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, concludes that a gradually deteriorating diet over the last century certainly has affected the timing of puberty in girls.

So what can parents do to protect their daughters? Dr. Joel Fuhrman MD recommends that children’s diets should focus on the following:

  • whole plant foods rather than animal foods;
  • minimizing dairy products;
  • using soy, almond and hemp milks instead of cows’ milk;
  • and minimizing highly processed foods.

The latter are often calorie dense and nutrient poor, so they promote obesity and other diseases. He suggests that children’s diets should include a wide variety of natural plant foods, including green vegetables, squashes, corn, carrots, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, fruits and whole grains. Organic produce should be chosen whenever possible to avoid synthetic pesticides, which can sometimes contribute to the onset of precocious puberty.

While precocious puberty is a very complex problem with many influences, diet looms quite large. As is so often the case, food matters a lot. The message is clear – give your daughters the vegetarian advantage for health.