Promoting children's healthy eating in obesogenic environments: Lessons learned from the rat.
Current statistics on children's eating patterns and obesity rates are consistent with the idea that genetic taste predispositions, traditional feeding practices, and the obesogenic environment combine to increase the likelihood of unhealthy outcomes in many individuals. In this paper, we focus on one particular level of analysis through which this unhealthy combination of factors may begin to be disassembled: children's learning about food and flavors. Much of the research on children's learning about food and flavors has been inspired by the animal literature, which has a long history of carefully controlled studies elucidating the mechanisms through which rats and other animals learn to prefer and avoid foods and flavors. This literature provides many clues as to the processes by which learning paradigms may be used to encourage the intake of healthy foods, altering the implicit learning of obesogenic eating patterns that is likely to occur without intervention in the current environment. Overall, the implications of the literature are that children should be repeatedly exposed to a variety of flavors early in life, and that new flavors should be paired with already-liked flavors and positive contexts. This message is consistent with recent research results from our laboratory, showing that familiarization and associative learning paradigms may be used to increase young children's acceptance of, preference for, and intake of previously-unfamiliar, healthy foods.