A Startling Side Effect of Obesity in Young Girls

by Meg Meeker

Puberty starting in the first and second grades? Yes — that’s the deeply concerning trend that pediatricians like me have seen over the past 20 years, and Pediatrics has just released a study confirming our worries. From 1997 to 2010, the percent of 7-year-old white girls in the U.S. with early breast development (the first sign of puberty) jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent; for black girls, the jump was from 15 percent to 23 percent; for Hispanic girls, the number now stands at 15 percent.

So why is this news such a big deal? For one thing, early puberty is terribly hard on girls socially, emotionally, and even physically. Research shows that girls who start puberty early experience higher rates of troubled relationships. They get bullied and sexually harassed. And when third-grade girls look like sixth-grade girls, adults expect them to act older, which makes the girls feel crazy.

The science community tells us that this phenomenon is probably related to “increased” nutrition — and, in fact, most of these young girls are overweight. Scientists also speculate that added hormones and other chemicals in foods may contribute.

So what do we do? No parent wants his daughter menstruating in third grade. Since we believe that early puberty is probably related to being overweight, let’s take the bull by the horns and get serious about helping our kids keep their weight down.

Our kids are bludgeoned with food advertisements, and we aren’t going to stop this. But we can train our kids in the ways of self discipline. We already teach them to work harder in school and practice harder on the soccer field; now we must train them to live with feelings of hunger. We have allowed our kids to believe that every discomfort, including hunger, should be assuaged. Let’s train them to live with uncomfortable feelings and help them control their weight. We can keep their bodies moving by cutting “screen” time in front of electronics, too. And we can show them how to eat: Sit with your kids at dinner and eat one serving each of meat, salad, and potatoes. We have long known that family meals help build strong family relationships; now they just might help delay puberty in our girls as well.

Dr. Meg Meeker is author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, among other books.