Childhood Obesity and Race in the U.S.

In previous decades, a girl would be happy to blossom with womanly attributes ahead of her friends. Precocity in this area would bestow a certain kind of status and maybe even popularity. But now, thanks to hormones in the food chain and other factors, early maturation has gotten out of hand, with results that sometimes border on the grotesque. Ten-year-olds are not supposed to look like 20-year-olds.

Medically, early onset puberty is not considered desirable; nevertheless it appears to be the new normal. In 2013, researchers from three medical centers published a longitudinal study, concerning more than 1,200 girls. They ranged from six to eight years of age at enrollment in the program, and had been followed from 2004 to 2011. The subjects were contacted several times a year and measured against what are called “well-established criteria of pubertal maturation.”

Pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, one of the co-authors, told an interviewer that the onset of menstruation is a less reliable sign than breast budding. Julie Beck reported:

The median age of breast budding in the study varied by race, with the lowest median at 8.8 years for black girls, and the highest at 9.7 for Asian girls. Since these are the median ages, that means half of girls were developing even earlier than that.

Girls are 10 times more likely than boys to experience precocious puberty. Oddly, in boys there does not seem to be a link between this condition and obesity, but it is definitely there in girls. The whole situation is complicated by uncertainty over whether the condition is a cause of obesity, or a result, or if the two problems just happen to show up together by chance.

Frank Biro, M.D., lead investigator for that same multi-institutional study, emphasizes that the potential problems are both biological and psychological. He warns:

Girls with earlier maturation are at risk for a multitude of challenges, including lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression, norm-breaking behaviors and lower academic achievement. Early maturation also results in greater risks of obesity, hypertension and several cancers — including breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.

Those “norm-breaking behaviors” are smoking, drinking, and having sex. Other authorities mention HPV, diabetes, and heart disease. And let’s not forget the very big risk known as teen pregnancy. The same study noted:

Body mass index was a stronger predictor of earlier puberty than race or ethnicity. Although the research team is still working to confirm the exact environmental and physiological factors behind the phenomenon, they conclude the earlier onset of puberty in white girls is likely caused by greater obesity.

It was strongly suspected that parental stress is a risk factor for childhood obesity, and in 2014 Boston’s Slone Epidemiology Center published a study of 59,000 black women which concluded that severe psychosocial stress contributes to obesity. Presumably many of those women had children, so their own stress levels and obesity both endangered their children. Lead author Yvette C. Cozier told the press,

The association between racism and weight gain was present within all levels of BMI, education, and geographic region…

We found that self-reported perceptions of racial discrimination are positively associated with higher weight gain in U.S. Black women. These results add to the body of evidence that experiences of racism may contribute to the excess burden of obesity observed in U.S. Black women and underscore the public health importance of continuing antidiscrimination efforts in this country and worldwide.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Long-Term Risks of Early Puberty,” TheAtlantic.com, 06/26/16
Source: “Earlier onset of puberty in girls linked to obesity,”
EurekAlert.org, 11/04/13
Source: “Research Finds Racism a Factor in Childhood Obesity,” Afro.com, 11/11/15
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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Presentations

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources