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Possible Causes of Precocious Puberty

Experts call out the main suspects, and tell how to cut the chances of early puberty happening to your kid.

Learning Benefits

Culprit #1: Excess Fat

The Connection
The percentage of U.S. children who are overweight or obese has tripled in the past three decades, and that parallels the drop in the age of puberty. One study found that for every point increase in a girl’s body mass index, the age she experiences her frst period drops by a month. (The weight issue is fuzzier for boys.)

Reduce the Risk

Processed foods are bad for everyone, but sugar is probably the biggest problem, notes Louise Greenspan, M.D. Consuming too much wreaks havoc on metabolism and gets the weight gain/hormonal production cycle rolling. In fact, a large-scale Harvard University study recently found that girls who consumed 1.5 servings of soda a day had their frst period almost three months earlier than girls who drank two

or fewer sugary beverages a week. To cut the intake of sugar and unhealthy fats, doctors recommend that everyone follow a primarily Mediterranean diet, which focuses on plant-based foods, eliminates junk foods, and limits red meat and high-fat dairy.

Culprit #2: Antibiotics in Food

The Connection
Animals today are pumped with antibiotics not only to resist disease but also to help them grow larger and mature earlier. If antibiotics are doing this to animals, they may have the same effect on kids when they consume meat, poultry, and dairy products, says Dr. Greenspan.

Reduce the Risk
There has been a lot of finger-pointing at the growth hormones used to plump chickens and keep cow’s milk flowing, but research has debunked that theory, explains Jami Josefson, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. However, studies have found that antibiotics may contribute to obesity as well as bacterial resistance, Dr. Greenspan notes. Her advice: While organic meats and milk are usually the best choice, if your budget is limited, opt for an antibiotic-free label instead.

Culprit #3: Chemicals in Plastics and Personal Products

The Connection
BPA is the most well-known hormone disrupter, but phthalates and parabens in lotions, soaps, and sunscreens interfere with the endocrine system, too. “Kids are much more vulnerable because they have more skin volume relative to their size, so they absorb more chemicals,” Dr. Greenspan explains.

Reduce the Risk
Cut down on plastics by storing food in glass containers and drinking from stainless steel water bottles. Avoiding chemicals in personal care products is more challenging, though, because they’re not always labeled. Download the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep app (Android and iOS, free) and scan a product’s bar code to get a safety rating. Also try to put less lotion on your kids (most don’t really need it). You can get away with using less sunscreen by relying on rash guards. Or buy mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium, which block UVs without chemicals. (Find the most current product recommendations at

Culprit #4: Social and Psychological Stressors

The Connection
When kids feel insecure, whether it’s because of an absentee father, a depressed mother, or from being in a family that fghts a lot, their bodies may trigger hormonal responses that cue puberty. Thus, these kids are hit doubly hard: Their home environment is stressful and they have the added challenge of dealing with all of puberty’s intense mood swings.

Reduce the Risk
While you can’t always change your circumstances, you can try to manage your own stress — through therapy, exercise, relaxation techniques — so that it doesn’t spill over onto your child (plus, you’ll be modeling healthy ways to cope). Prioritizing sleep for everyone in the family is also key. Not only does rest help regulate mood, but numerous studies have also found a link between a lack of shut-eye and weight gain.


Photo Credit: Hannah Whitaker; Illustration Credit: Orka Collective

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