Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right.
Generations of parents have known, understood, and parroted this fact to teenagers with raging hormones who didn’t want to hear the old adage one more time.
But for some reason, when it comes to hormones in 10-year-old girls, doctors aren’t getting it.
They decided that since everyone was doing it, it must be “normal” and simply redefined what’s acceptable (source) rather than digging into find out what’s wrong with a generation of young children. Even other researchers disagree (source).
If your daughter or granddaughter becomes one of the increasingly common 6-8-year-old girls growing pubic hair and breast buds (source), you might feel worried.
And you should be!
But your reaction should not be this:
When I posted an article about earlier puberty in girls on Facebook, I was dismayed to see the high percentage of commenters with that knee-jerk reaction. They clearly did not click through to actually read the article (there should be a disease name for that, like “title-is-enough-for-me-osis” or “don’t-need-to-know-the-whole-story-ism”).
“It’s the meat! The dairy! The huge-breasted chickens! What are we doing to our food these days?!?”
Lo and behold, educated by their skill in reading titles of articles on the Internet, they knew exactly the problem.
Surprise, surprise: They’re wrong.
Chickens, Cattle, and Hormones, Oh My!
Chickens don’t even need growth hormones, steroids, or supplemental estrogen or testosterone of any kind.
It’s been illegal for decades.
Beef cattle are allowed to be treated with hormones (6 of them, 3 natural, 3 synthetic), but that can’t be the whole story. Dairy cattle are allowed to be treated with the infamous rBST or rBGH, but due to popular consumer demand, most farms no longer use it, as evidenced on the majority of milk jugs anyone can read in the store.
But even with that hormonal influence on our environment and our food supply via cattle farming, the problem of earlier puberty is not just about food, and in fact, only a small percentage of orally consumed hormones make it through the digestive system according to research done by Parodi (2012) and Hartmann et. al (1998).
It’s a much bigger issue than that.
Is this more than your average Facebook scroller and post title reader can handle?
I’m going to do my best to keep it brief and digestible…promise.
The beginning of the story is this:
- The average age of onset of menstruation was 16 in 1860, 14 in 1920, and 12.5 today.
- In the last 30-40 years, those numbers have moved down 6 months – which feels significant for such a short time.
- The very start of puberty – breast development – has dropped two full years in those same four decades. So puberty is lasting longer, which may point to external sources of estrogen that our girls’ bodies are reacting to by beginning breast development.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls by Greenspan and Deardorff
The question to pursue is: Where is environmental estrogen found in larger quantities over the last century?
There is Estrogen in Meat…and Some Other Stuff
All animals create hormones as part of their normal growth and development, and the testosterone and estrogen in animals is the same substance as in humans.
So every time we eat meat, we’re going to consume that animal’s hormones.
There are also six hormones approved for use in cattle: 3 natural, 3 synthetic. However, the residue in the meat is extremely small, less than that of natural hormones in some instances, and remember that research that showed that consumed hormones don’t make it through our digestive system all that efficiently.
That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of hormone therapy for animals, and it doesn’t mean there are no ill effects from it – similar to the problems in fish from hormonal birth control excreted into the water supply, aquatic ecosystems downstream from cattle farms demonstrate major fertility problems. The males are feminized and the females are masculinized. The hormones are at least somewhat persistent in the environment.
Besides that, the fact remains that “A 2009 study found that children who consumed the most protein from animal sources entered puberty about seven months earlier than those who consumed the least.” (source)
But correlation does not equal causation, and it’s not necessarily about the hormones – Marcia Herman-Giddens, lead author of a 1997 study on early puberty in girls, rang in on the 2009 study for the Huffington Post:
“It’s more likely that meat, milk, and similar foods help trigger earlier puberty because they are rich in protein, calories, and nutrients.”
You can poo-poo that comment all you want, but check this out: many vegetables have more estrogen than hormone-therapy-implanted beef:
source for table
But – have these vegetables changed in estrogen quantity over the last century? Not likely. In the case of soy, we are certainly eating a massively larger quantity than the 1800s, and it’s possible we simply eat more meat because food in general is in greater abundance: easier to purchase, easier to prepare since it’s all done for you.
Why Chickens Get so Big so Fast
Yes, it’s true that the chicken breasts you buy in the store seem impossibly huge.
Yes, it’s true that today’s conventionally farmed meat chickens have massive amounts of breast meat.
Yes, it’s true that those poor chickens get so big in front that they often have trouble walking and may even break their own legs simply by the weight of their chests.
But it’s not added hormones in their feed (that wouldn’t work anyway).
It’s not injected hormones (they’d have to inject them multiple times per day for very little result).
It’s not any supplementation at all.
Big-breasted chickens are so because of three practices:
- Breeding for growth
- Feeding for growth
- Growing for growth (their environment)
Are these things good for the chicken?
But they make big meat.
Add to that the up to 30% filler that can be pumped into the chicken meat after it is slaughtered (salt, water, sugars, broth, preservatives), and you’ve got a recipe for impossibly fat, juicy chicken breasts.
The Real Reasons for Early Puberty in Girls
Let me say it again: It’s not just the meat!
The complexities of the human body are so vast that it’s impossible to pin a general downward trend in onset of puberty on one thing. However, scientists and doctors have quite a few researched theories:
- Pharmaceuticals in tap water: How many millions of women take birth control and hormone replacement therapy these days? All that extra estrogen is excreted into the sewage system, cannot be filtered by water treatment, and ends up in our water supply. There’s no way this only effect girls. (sources: 1, 2)
- Estrogen-like endocrine disrupting chemicals (EEDC) – they’re everywhere, and this is definitely new in the last century.
- Not enough exercise: Getting exercise is one of the few actions research-proven to help avoid early puberty. (sources: 1, 2)
- Fat accumulation/obesity: One theory is that because hormones collect in fatty tissue, additional fat may cause higher levels of hormones that spark the onset of puberty earlier. (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
- Familial make-up: Girls without dad in the home are twice as likely to enter puberty early. (sources: 1, 2)
- Poor infant-mother bond. (source)
- Stress, especially severe and early in life. (sources: 1, 2)
- Sleep patterns being interrupted: Poor sleep decreases melatonin levels, an important hormone. Artificial lighting and screens after natural daylight ends impact this greatly. (sources: 1, 2, 3)
- Low Vitamin D (source)
Now we have to remember that research has only shown that all those elements may be related to early onset of puberty, in girls in particular (obesity, for example, actually works exactly the opposite in boys).
Correlation does not equal causation.
The problems above may in some cases be the result of early puberty or even completely unrelated.
Or perhaps they’re related to each other, like this one:
You’re Not Fat Because You Eat Too Much
Similar to the popular quick answer to the early puberty question, most people respond to the problem of obesity in one of three ways:
- We eat too much!
- Too much fat and sugar!
- Not enough exercise!
Research over the last decade has begun to point to the possibility that endocrine disruptors in our environment – from the personal products we use to the containers for our food and drink – may be a major culprit in the obesity epidemic. (source)
Those same endocrine disruptors are also correlated with early puberty.
So it really isn’t all about the chicken.
The bottom line is this – you can’t just avoid early puberty in girls (or messed up reproductive systems for anyone) by becoming a vegan.
Nothing is that simple.
But rather than be overwhelmed by another fearful article, be encouraged – you’re probably already avoiding a lot of the things responsible for reproductive malfunctions already, and if you’re not, take some baby steps today.
15 Ways to Improve Your Family’s Chances for Healthy Reproductive Systems
- Ditch plastic wherever possible: stainless steel water bottles, glass dishes for food, reusable sandwich bags for food on the go, and no single use water bottles if you can help it.
- Seek out natural personal products – I have a huge list of everything I use in our home RIGHT HERE. At the very least, familiarize yourself with the top chemicals to avoid, including any word that ends in “paraben.” From my interview with a biochemist, chemical sunscreens would be a big one to avoid, too. (See the interview here: “Have Some Hormone Replacement Therapy with your Bikini“)
- Lean toward organic beef as much as possible. (Here are a few online sources if you don’t have anything locally available: Tropical Traditions, Tendergrass Farms, U.S. Wellness Meats – my affiliate links.)
- Any organic food you can afford is a great idea since chemical pesticides are pegged in a whole host of issues including endocrine system woes.
- Any whole foods you can eat vs. processed foods is a good step – you’ll avoid BPA in packaging and help your families’ bodies stay as healthy as possible and at a healthy weight. I can help you teach your kids to cook and enjoy real food – and if you’re a rookie yourself, you might pick up some skills in the process.
- Skip the sugar.
- Help your children get sufficient and quality sleep. Limit screens especially at night. (See my post, The Secret to Healing Sleep, for more.)
- Take a Vitamin D supplement.
- Stay married – to your daughter’s biological father. See this comment for more detail.
- Form strong bonds with your babies.
- Avoid processed soy (read the labels – it’s everywhere, unfortunately!).
- Seek to reduce stress – for everyone in your family!
- Skip the feetie jams – all pajamas except tight-fitting ones are treated with flame retardants. Look into safe mattress alternatives as well.
- Avoid birth control in your home and advocate others to do the same. NFP is a fantastic alternative to chemical birth control. Unfortunately, there is no filter on the market that I know of that can remove pharmaceuticals and estrogen from the water supply, so in this case, you’re mostly at the mercy of other people’s decisions.
- Exercise. It’s one of the few interventions known to help prevent early puberty. (source)
Naturally, this post got longer than I was shooting for. I had to delete entire paragraphs and stay my hand from typing more that I wanted to share, but if you can still digest information like it’s 2010 and you desire more information, you have to read these articles:
- The New York Times article that started it all. (Particularly read the part about Robert Lustig and his challenges to the entire theory of earlier onset of puberty!)
- Mercola’s thoughts
- Links to Obesity from NBC News
- Great research on the hormones in beef and how DES impacted a generation
- How to Prevent Early Puberty from Eco-Novice.