Hormones in food may lead to early puberty

The pediatrician’s first reaction to then second-grader Kayla Haye’s budding breasts—a sign of the child’s premature puberty—was to consider placing her on therapeutic hormones.

“A 7-year-old on hormone medication? Well that’s not gonna happen,” said Adriane McDonald-Haye, Kayla’s mom, recalling her response to that suggestion eight years ago. “Just the idea of putting my child on hormones triggered all kinds of concerns.”

So the Brooklyn, N.Y. mother took a different course of action, scouring the web and probing other parents on the topic. Ultimately, she was persuaded by claims—including from some physicians—that consumption of hormone-laden meat and poultry was linked to early-onset puberty, which is on the rise in general and more prevalent among black children.

“I changed Kayla’s diet to one that is as organic as possible,” McDonald-Haye said. “I actually have a pack of organic chicken wings in my fridge right now. We cheat every so often, eating fast food. But, overall, I try to stay as natural as possible.”

McDonald-Haye is aware of the continuing debate over the effects of hormone-infused meat and dairy products on growing bodies.  Nevertheless, she credits her better-safe-than-sorry dietary overhaul with delaying Kayla’s first period, which she got when she was 10. That’s roughly 2.5 years ahead of the national average.

Indeed, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, in a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls and two percent of Asian girls had started developing breasts by the time they were seven.

At a time when girls as young as five are showing signs of early-onset puberty—defined as occurring in females younger than eight and males younger than nine—parents are well advised to be extra vigilant, said Dr. Susanne Tropez-Sims, a pediatrician at Meharry Medical College Nashville, Tenn.

Fearing the potential effects of hormones used in the meat, poultry and dairy industries—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows six different sex hormones for meat and dairy production—Tropez-Sims only serves organic milk or hormone-free, grass- and grain-fed meat and poultry to her own grandchildren.

A 2010 study by British researchers, published in Public Health Nutrition, concluded that high consumption of animal proteins did contribute to early puberty.