Several factors are contributing to the prevalence of early onset puberty in young girls. Learn what they are and how you can support your daughter.
Puberty can be a difficult transition for girls. Entering puberty at an early age and developing an adult-like body before their peers can be especially confusing and emotionally and socially taxing for children.
Known as precocious puberty, the number of girls affected by this condition has increased dramatically over the last few years and continues to grow. More and more girls in the U.S. are starting to show signs of development before the age of 8. Recent studies show that up to 10 percent of Caucasian girls and 23 percent of African American girls are showing signs of puberty by age 7.
What’s Contributing to Precocious Puberty (Early Puberty)
Why are the numbers of girls affected by precocious puberty increasing? Determining the exact cause is difficult to target. But experts agree that several factors may be contributing to these growing numbers.
- Increasing rates of childhood overweight and obesity. Excess body fat alters the levels of hormones responsible for the acceleration of pubertal timing. Physical inactivity may decrease melatonin levels, which can also trigger pubertal development.
- Increased animal protein intake. Higher total protein, animal protein and meat intake in children ages 3 to 7 have been associated with earlier onset of menstruation. High protein intake elevates IGF-1 levels and promotes growth, which could accelerate the onset of puberty.
- Poor diet.Children with lower-nutrient diets tend to enter puberty earlier. A diet rich in processed foods and meats, dairy, and fast food is disruptive to normal physical development.
- Exposure to EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals). EDCs are synthetic chemicals found in plastics, pesticides, fuels and other industrial chemicals that inhibit or alter the action of natural hormones. Because EDCs accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, animal foods contain higher levels of these chemicals than plant foods.
- Exposure to BPA (bisphenol A). BPA is an industrial petrochemical found in a variety of products including plastics, tin-can linings and even cash register receipts. Because it acts as a synthetic estrogen it may speed up pubertal development.
- Soy products. Soy contain isoflavones which are converted to phytoestregens in the body, and are similar to the hormone estrogen, Dr. Chelsea Wicks says. “Soy consumed from natural food sources is likely safe and will not cause abnormal hormones levels. However, when consumed in large amounts, such as with soy supplements or in more processed foods, there have been links to chronic medical problems due to elevated estrogen levels. I feel a good answer to this is to continue working on eating fresh foods and trying to avoid the processed, packaged foods as this will be best for overall general nutrition as well,” she adds.
What You Can Do
While some genetic factors play a role in the early onset of puberty, parents can help allay environmental causes of the condition.
- Encourage and help your child to maintain a healthy weight with proper nutrition and exercise.
- Avoid exposure to hormones such as estrogen and testosterone that may be found in hair products, medications and nutritional supplements.
- Avoid exposure to EDCs and BPA.
- Offer your child a diet centered around whole plant foods rather than animal foods, which will help keep protein intake within a safe range and reduce consumption of EDCs.
Create a supportive environment for your daughter. Avoid commenting on her appearance and instead focus on her achievements, academic successes or artistic talents. Speak to her openly and honestly about the physical changes she’s experiencing — that although these changes are normal, she’s simply developing early — and that ultimately her peers will undergo the same changes. Encourage your daughter to continue participating in social activities and pursuing her interests, and reassure her you are always open to discuss any questions or worries.
If you are concerned that your child may be going through these changes before expected, speak with your pediatrician.