Precocious Puberty: A Risk Factor For Eating Disorders
Posted Feb 08 2012 10:11pm
“It’s so different now than it was when she was young,” says Marie, looking at 15-year-old Adena, who has anorexia. “Adena matured early. I remember that by age 6 she was already developing breasts, and she was only 8 when she got her period. She would get such attention from men, which she craved due to our divorce. I think that is part of her illness.”
Adena’s story is not unusual. Adena’s emaciated body appears more childlike today than in early pictures of a robust preteen. With her mother’s recounting, it appears that Adena had precocious – or early – puberty.
Puberty is the physical process in which a young person becomes sexually mature. The term puberty is derived from the Latin word puberatum (age of maturity) and refers to the bodily changes of sexual maturation. In girls, puberty usually begins at 11 years of age, but may start as early as age 7. A recent study published in Pediatrics found that by age 7, about 10 percent of white and 23 percent of African-American girls had started developing breasts. This compares with 5 and 15 percent respectively in a study published in 1997.
Precocious puberty is defined as puberty that occurs before age 7-8. In girls, this is signaled by the growth of breasts and pubic hair. Many explanations have been proposed for the decreasing age of puberty. These include the use of growth hormones, especially estrogens, in meat and milk products. Estrogens stimulate breast development, which then signals the body for puberty. Despite the compelling anecdotal evidence, there has not been research definitively linking growth hormones to precocious puberty.
In Adena’s case, her mother was revolutionary for the times and Adena consumed primarily organic products. She was, however, substantially overweight. “I know I ate to fill a void when my father left,” she says, “now, eating is a struggle.”
Experts so believe that another explanation for earlier onset of puberty is the rise in childhood obesity. Excess fat can make the body produce excess estrogen, which can lead to puberty. This link between body fat and puberty also explains why girls with anorexia, and those who are athletes, may not menstruate or many menstruate later than the norm.
It is important to consider the psychological effects of early puberty. Children with precocious puberty may appear physically older than their years, but their minds and emotions still correlate with their chronological age.
Studies have shown that precocious puberty has lasting psychological effects. Many females who start puberty early view their bodies negatively. These girls stand out in comparison with friends, and this may result in low self-esteem. There is also some evidence that these girls may seek older and more mature friends, which can lead to premature experiences, particularly within the sexual realm. Low self-esteem and early sexual experiences are risk factors for the development of eating disorders. Anorexia may be a way to reverse the clock.
It is important to be aware of signs of eating disorders, such preoccupation with food and weight, negative self-statements particularly about one’s body, making excuses to avoid eating, and dieting behaviors. Children should feel good about their bodies and to view puberty as a positive rite of passage.