The link between obesity and early onset puberty

The link between obesity and early onset puberty
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BYY chatted to sexologist, obstetrician, and gynecologist Dr Mpume Zenda about what’s causing girls to experience puberty at a younger age. By BYY

Famously known as “Dr Gynae”, this inspiring doctor who has women’s heath as her passion, gave some insights into a topic that has gained traction and caused concern over the last few years.

So, why are many girls getting their periods so much earlier than previously?  These days, it’s become common to hear of 9 and even 8-year old’s getting their periods or hitting puberty. “Traditionally girls would begin menstruation between 12 and 14 years of age and now it’s between 9 and 11 years old, which is the average age for a girl to get her period in South Africa. The statistics prove that previously there was 5-8% childhood obesity and now, because of diet and lifestyle, childhood puberty is shockingly at 20%,” says Zenda.

Don’t miss modern menstruation options for girls

Overweight/obesity in childhood is a global public health problem that is prevalent in both developing and developed countries. As reported, up to 19.2% individuals aged 7–18 years old were overweight or obese in China. In the United States, the prevalence of obesity in 6 to 11-year-old children rose from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Concurrently, the percentage of obese individuals aged in the 12 to 19-year-old population rose from 5 to nearly 21%. In 2016, more than 340 million individuals aged 5–19 were overweight or obese worldwide.

Dr Zenda says, “Research has shown that if you’re overweight or obese, then you’re much more likely to reach puberty earlier. “This is because fat is a source of Estrogen so the more fat, the more Estrogen circulating in the body, the higher Leptin levels and all of these lead to the body going into puberty. Girls do need a certain amount of good fat for the body to be able to menstruate and kickstart a period, but if excessive, it leads to hormonal imbalances which can tip the body into early puberty.”

Packing healthy lunchboxes

The studies also show that being overweight or obesity from age 2-7 years is associated with earlier onset of puberty in boys as well as in girls. However, those with overweight or obesity at age 2-4 years who became normal weight at age 5-7 had normal timing of puberty.

It’s also worth noting that an American study found that genetically, African American girls got their periods younger than Caucasians so there is perhaps a genetic link that needs more research. The link between obesity and early onset puberty - BabyYumYum

“The truth is that this is partly due to kids leading much more sedentary lifestyles than say 20 or 30 years ago. The advent of the Internet, addiction to devices and gadgets, online gaming and more processed foods in the diet, less exercise and a decrease in time playing outside are somewhat to blame. Girls also sometimes tend to become more disinterested in sports as teenagers,” says Zenda.

The latest research has also shown that many toxins in our environment are endocrine disruptors, leading to early onset puberty and menstruation. These include chemicals in household cleaners and cosmetics, hormones in our water that have not been filtered out, hormones in factory farmed meat, milk and eggs, chemicals in all kinds of plastic and wrappings as well as pesticides on fruit and vegetables, to name a few.

Psychologically, it’s difficult for an 8- or 9-year-old child to manage the practicality of periods – it can be weird and awkward, even for older children. The trauma of these childhood experiences can impact their self-confidence and self-esteem for life if not dealt with correctly.

Raising kids with a healthy body image

“Parents and teachers must educate themselves on how to have these conversations,” says Zenda. It’s clear that our kids need us to be open and honest with them and communicate efficiently. Mindsets need to be changed from viewing menstruation as dirty or unclean as something normal and necessary.” Reproductive processes and health need to be seen as healthy rather than something oppressive. But early onset puberty also needs to be seen as a warning sign that something needs to change in our diets, lifestyles and environment.

Read more on painful periods

Top tips

*“Kids do what you do, not what you say,” warns Dr Zenda, so be a positive role model for a healthy lifestyle that includes lots of exercise, fresh air, time away from screens and a balanced, wholesome diet with lots of vegetables and fibre. How to get kids to eat healthily

  • Have age-appropriate conversations with your daughters and sons about periods, sex and puberty. Do not let cultural or religious taboos or your own biases influence or stop you.
  • Normalise periods and try and make it a time of celebration, not shame and stigma.
  • “The more information that boys have about periods, the more likely they are to treat women with kindness and not be dismissive of what they go through,” says Zenda.
  • Check the labels on your food, cosmetics, and household chemics and avoid plastics.

Watch out for Dr Gynae’s new book!

Read more on obesity here:

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