I'm not too proud to admit that reports that a study found excess weight in preschoolers could lead to early puberty had me eyeing my naturally chubby 3-year-old daughter with some anxiety. Would she be one of those 9-year-olds sauntering through the elementary school halls sporting a brazen teenage glare, a bra and a purse stuffed with tampons? You can call me paranoid but the study's press release laid out the consequences: "Studies have shown that earlier onset of puberty can lead to higher rates of behavioral problems and psychosocial stress, as well as earlier initiation of alcohol use, sexual intercourse, and increased rates of adult obesity and reproductive cancer."
Everywhere you go, warnings about childhood obesity are ubiquitous. In my neighborhood in San Francisco, there's currently a huge billboard looming over our local grocery store parking lot. It pictures a little African-American girl smiling brightly and holding out a half-empty cup of juice like some drunken lush in an anti-alcohol campaign. The motto: "Obesity in little children is a big deal."
Indeed, being overweight, no matter the age, increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And with recent calculations showing that obesity among children between 6 and 11 has quadrupled in the past 20 years, fat-kid research has exploded with new headlines every few weeks. Much of the research has confirmed the obvious: Children who sit in front of the TV are more likely to be fat than their non-couch-potato counterparts, parents' eating habits affect what children eat, low-income toddlers are more prone to obesity and, worst of all, a report showed that girls were more likely to gain weight as preteens (yeah, it's called puberty). Other findings are more counterintuitive -- for instance, kids tend to gain the most weight in the summer when, presumably, they are able to be a lot more active.
Though the relentless smorgasbord has given me obesity research fatigue, the study equating chubby toddlers with premature hoochie mamas disturbed me. So I was pleased to read two smart, if conflicting, responses to the study. Slate's on-call doctor, Sydney Spiesel, explained that researchers have long known that there is a correlation between weight gain and early puberty, but they were unsure about causation. Did chubbiness cause puberty, or was it the other way around? Now that a study has looked at girls' weight far before the onset of puberty and found a link, he concludes that the "connection between excess weight in childhood and early sexual maturation is worrisome." And with the added social and psychological risks of early puberty well documented, the "stakes in the control of childhood obesity may turn out to be even higher than we thought."
Junkfood Science, a blog by nurse Sandy Szwarc that attempts to dispel much of the scary scientific research about diets, fat and food, painstakingly dissects the study and its limitations. Her concerns are too numerous to sum up here, but she wasn't terribly convinced that they found anything truly new about the rise in early puberty and she was concerned that the study might lead certain crazy paranoid mothers to start feeding their 3-year-olds nonfat diets.
"It was used to repeat and spread fears about childhood obesity and of puberty occurring in younger girls, based on speculations and poorly conducted studies," she concludes. "For example, their suggestion quoted in the press release that early puberty -- and, by association, 'obesity' -- leads to behavioral problems, sexual promiscuity, etc. Had anyone examined the evidence for such claims, they would have realized just how incredible they were. As an example published in a 2005 issue of Prevention of Chronic Diseases, researchers examined survey questionnaires from Israel Defense Force recruits from 1986 to 2000. They reported a trend of decreasing age of first menses among these young women. They also found an increasing trend among teen girls of smoking and using oral contraceptives."
Now, I'm not contemplating a diet for my toddler, but I don't want to lead her to a difficult puberty just because she's a milkaholic. In the end it's always a gamble, knowing what new study to pay attention to, especially when it concerns one's children.