Soft Drinks Linked to Early Puberty, Breast Cancer

New research findings from the Harvard School of Public Health have found that the consumption of too many sugar sweetened drinks can lead to early puberty.

New research findings from the Harvard School of Public Health have found that the consumption of too many sugar sweetened drinks can lead to early puberty.

Soda Linked To Early Puberty

As if being linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and violence were not enough, a new study from Harvard shows that girls who drink too many sugary drinks get their periods earlier.

According to a press release, new research findings published in the journal Human Reproduction from the Harvard School of Public Health have found that the consumption of too many sugar sweetened soft drinks can lead to early puberty.

Researchers followed 5583 girls, aged 9-14 years between 1996 and 2001 and found that those who drank more than 1.5 servings of sugary drinks a day had their first period 2.7 months earlier than those who consumed two or fewer such drinks a week. This effect was independent of the girls’ body mass index (BMI), height, total food intake and other lifestyle factors such as physical activity.

The findings are important not only because of the growing problem of childhood obesity, but also because starting periods earlier is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer later in life. A one-year decrease in age at menarche is estimated to increase the risk of breast cancer by 5% ….. thus, a 2.7 month-decrease in age at menarche likely has a modest impact on breast cancer risk.

Karin Michels (ScD, PhD), Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School (Boston, USA), noted that the wide-spread consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks among children and adolescents in the USA and elsewhere is concerning because of the public health risks of childhood obesity, as well as the trend toward early puberty onset among girls. This trend has been observed in developed countries and the reason is largely unknown. However, there is some hope:

” … the public health significance of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption at age at menarche, and possibly breast cancer, should not be over-looked, since, unlike most other predictors of menarche, SSB consumption can be modified.”

The girls in the study were part of the long-term Growing up Today Study. Researchers used questionnaires to ask the girls about their diet at several points during the study, including how frequently, on average, they drank a serving of different types of drinks: one can or glass of soda or diet soda (soda being carbonated drinks such as colas), one glass of non-carbonated fruit drinks (fruit mixes such as lemonade, punch and other non-carbonated fruit drinks), or one glass, can or bottle of sweetened ice tea. All of these drinks have sugar added to them in the form of sucrose, glucose, corn syrup etc, while the colas and iced tea also contain caffeine.

The researchers also investigated diet sodas and fruit juice to assess the impact of artificially or naturally sweetened drinks. They found that diet sodas and fruit juices were not associated with any difference in the age at which girls started their periods.

The researchers say that drinks with added sugar have a higher glycemic index than naturally sweetened drinks such as fruit juices, and high glycemic foods result in a rapid increase in insulin concentrations in the body. Higher insulin concentrations can result in higher concentrations of sex hormones, and large alterations in the concentrations of these hormones circulating in the body has been linked to periods starting earlier. Greater caffeine intake has also been associated with earlier periods. However, the researchers found that total sugar or caffeine intake did not explain their results, and that it was the added sugar in drinks such as sodas that was the culprit.

Interested in the other evils of sugar sweetened drinks? This fascinating infographic, not yet updated to include this new data, shows 8 Ways Soda Negatively Affects Your Health.

Photo: Aleph Studio/Shutterstock.com

Written by Jennifer Kaplan

Jennifer Kaplan writes about sustainable food and wine, the intersection of food and marketing and food politics for Insteading (and EatDrinkBetter.com before the two sites merged) and is the author of Greening Your Small Business. She is an Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone and was named one of The 16 Women You Must Follow on Twitter for Green Business. She has four kids, a dog, a hamster, an MFA and an MBA – follow her on Twitter.

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