Early Puberty: Another Scary Side Effect of Obesity

ThinkStockIt’s no secret that little girls today are hitting puberty earlier than ever before, but new research published Monday in the medical journal Pediatrics has identified a new reason for the surge: obesity. 

Frank Biro, a physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and his team tracked 1,200 girls 6 to 8 years old in San Francisco, New York, and Cincinnati, observing their body mass index (BMI), when they started developing breasts and the results were surprising. “We found that the mean age for early puberty in Caucasian girls is 9.6, four months earlier than previously believed, and the median age is 8.5, about one year earlier than previously believed,” Biro tells Yahoo Shine. 

The study also found that African American girls experienced breast development at a median age of 8.8 years, Hispanic girls at 9.3 years, and Asian girls at 9.7 years.

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One reason for the increase may stem from how food affects the body. It’s possible that children are simply eating too much and that carrying around extra pounds could cause the body to behave as though it has enough energy to start the maturation process. Another reason: Many items kids today regularly consume (soda, potato chips, and yogurt, for example) are often made with high-fructose corn syrup, which includes chemicals called obesogens (they're also found in scented products such as perfume and body lotion). It might be that obesogens rejigger the body’s ability to control weight — increasing fat cells, decreasing caloric burn — making children heavier, which further fuels early maturation.

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The study also found that children don’t just contend with physical changes since early puberty can thrust them into grown-up territory, evoking complex emotional issues. For example, just because a young girl has developed breasts, it doesn't mean she is prepared for the inevitable attention from her peers. Not surprisingly, early puberty can trigger emotional problems. “Girls who mature early often suffer academically and experience lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression,” says Biro.

Compounding the issue is an emerging industry exploding with products that cater specifically to girls in early development. In 2010, British retailer Primark pulled a line of hot-pink padded bikinis from their kids' collection after children’s protection agencies protested. And in 2012, the ever-controversial clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch drew criticism for selling push-up bikinis for children. (Back in 2002, the store sold items targeted at little girls emblazoned with the words “Eye candy” and “Wink wink”).

According to Biro, the key to preventing early maturation lies in simple measures: "Make sure kids eat a balanced, healthy diet, limiting their consumption of processed foods, and staying as active as possible."

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