A childhood STOLEN

Back in Victorian times, the average age for the onset of menstruation was 17. In the 1970s, girls were menstruating at an average age of 11. Today, children as young or five or six – barely off the bottle and out of diapers – are starting their periods.

Early menstruation can be particularly unsettling and may cause little girls a lot of shame-based attitudes and behaviours that could scar them for the rest of their lives

In his book Balance Your Hormones (Piatkus), world-renowned nutritionist Dr Patrick Holford cites research by Dr Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina, USA, who found that 48% of black girls and 15% of white ones were developing breasts and pubic hair before their 10th birthdays. “All of us in paediatric practice had a sense that girls were developing earlier, but we were still surprised at how young many of them were,” he writes.

Although there are no official local statistics available, Segal regularly sees children as young as four or five at his practice at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, while Cape Town-based functional integrative nutritional therapist, Dr Sally Creed – co-author with Prof Tim Noakes of the best-selling The Real Meal Revolution (Quivertree) – is increasingly seeing cases of precocious puberty in her practice.

“I see many girls, some as young as five, who are already menstruating and have breasts developing. It’s tragic. My findings are that it comes mostly from eating a lot of hormone-laden chicken and too much dairy (especially milk), to which hormones have been added,” she says.

In the UK, Dr Imogen Rogers at the University of Brighton has conclusively linked the early onset of puberty to diet. She found that girls aged three to seven who ate large amounts of hormone-laden meat, and those aged seven who ate more than 12 servings of such meat each week, were more likely to experience precocious puberty. “These changes are particularly concerning, because early onset of puberty is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and menopausal problems,” says Holford.

There’s very little ‘real’ nutritious food being sold in supermarkets: much of what people purchase are conveyor-belt, non-food substances loaded with chemicals and industrial by-products, genetically modified foods and cheap refined carbohydrates, like sugar

Food Sham

In 2010 the lid was blown off the state of the South African food industry when it was revealed that Supreme Chicken was injecting old chicken with brine, repackaging it and selling it with a new expiry date. The scandal affected popular fast-food outlets KFC and Nando’s, as well as Pick n Pay and Shoprite/Checkers.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Activist behind the Jozi Food Revolution, Debbie Logan, says: “There’s very little ‘real’ nutritious food being sold in supermarkets: much of what people purchase are conveyor-belt, non-food substances loaded with chemicals and industrial by-products, genetically modified foods and cheap refined carbohydrates, like sugar. The more dependent people have become on processed food and the less real farm food they’ve been eating, the more disease has increased in the Western world.”

The USA and South Africa are two of the few countries where recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) hasn’t been banned. It’s injected into dairy cows every two weeks, which raises milk production by 10 to 25%, and is believed to be one of the hormones linked to breast cancer and precocious puberty.

Angus McIntosh, a biodynamic
 farmer at Spier Estate in the Western Cape, says the South African food industry “isn’t monitored at all”. He believes almost all the meat produced for consumption is treated with hormones, “but so are table fruits like grapes, plums and oranges. Terms like ‘free-range’ are meaningless in SA. The best monitor is a visit to your farmer,” he says.

Food in plastic packaging can also become dangerous when heated (especially in microwaves), as chemicals are released into the food