A diet high in meat may lead to early puberty in girls, a study suggests.

The research, led by Dr Imogen Rogers at the University of Brighton, compared the diets of 3,000 12-year-old girls.

It found that girls who had higher intakes of meat and protein between the ages of three and seven were more likely to have started their periods by the time they were 12-and-a-half than those who ate less.

And 49 per cent of girls eating more than 12 portions of meat a week at the age of seven had reached puberty by 12-and-a-half, compared with 35 per cent of those who ate less than four portions of meat a week.

Dr Rogers, a senior lecturer at the university's School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, said there was evidence that girls who started their periods early faced a higher risk of diseases including breast and ovarian cancers and heart disease. But there was no reason why meat in moderation could not form part of a balanced diet for children.

Dr Rogers said further studies were needed but evidence suggested it was healthier to avoid eating very large amounts of meat.

The research has been published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.