Scientists at the University of Brighton conducting a study of 3,000 girls found that 49 per cent who were eating more than 12 portions of meat a week at the age of seven had started their period by 12 and a half, compared with only 35 per cent eating four portions or less.
Starting puberty early is believed to increase incidences of several conditions, among them cardiovascular disease and ovarian cancer. Breast cancer may be linked with early periods because women have higher oestrogen levels for a longer.
The report also found that girls were likely to hit puberty early if they were eating more than eight portions a week at the age of three.
“These results add to the evidence that it is healthiest to avoid diets containing very high amounts of meat,” said the report’s author, Dr Imogen Rogers.
She added that no firm dietary recommendations could be made before the results were repeated in other trials, and “there is no reason… that meat in moderation cannot form a valuable part of a balanced diet for children”.
The average age at which girls first get their periods has dropped considerably over the last century, and might “plausibl[y]” be linked with an increase in meat consumption, according to Ken Ong, a paediatric endocrinologist with the Medical Research Council.
“This was not related to larger body size, but rather could be due to a more direct effect of dietary protein on the body’s hormone levels,” he said.
The research was funded by the World Cancer Research Fund and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.