Cheri Levinson

Associate professor, psychological and brain sciences
Director, Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Laboratory

One size doesn’t fit all.

But when thin, smiling images dominate all sorts of entertainment and media, it’s frustrating for people who feel comparatively different and unrealistically driven to somehow conform.

And some – many – of those people develop eating disorders.

Eating disorders are mental health issues, and the problem is pervasive, critical and even life-threatening in a dangerous “diet culture,” says UofL researcher and psychologist Cheri Levinson, who is intent on expanding relief in an individualized way to those who experience an unhealthy relationship with food.

And they aren’t necessarily always the people you might presume – the classic perception of an adolescent girl or young woman trying to fit into a celebrity or doll-like body image, although they are affected too. People with eating disorders – an estimated 9% of Americans – come in all ages, sizes, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic categories.

Levinson and others joining this cause, including members of the nation’s second statewide council which she helped found, want to help dispel misperceptions about food and body image and to personalize treatments for what is not a one-size-fits-all problem.

“I still think there’s a lot of stigma, a lot of stereotypes and a lot of myths,” she said. “There’s an ingrained idea in our society that weight is equal to health There’s such an emphasis on everybody needing to be in a small body.”

As a young college student, Levinson was motivated to tackle this issue from observing many friends and family members with eating disorders. “It was pretty heartbreaking to watch and not know how to help them,” she said, adding that many were high achievers. “They had all this potential, and they were so stuck.”

So, she set out to do her part to make a difference.

At UofL she directs the Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Laboratory. She also founded the private Louisville Center for Eating Disorders and helped advocate for formation of the Kentucky Eating Disorders Council, for which she is vice chair.

Levinson’s research caught the attention of federal granting agencies and of the university, which tapped her for its initial class of ascending star fellows – associate professors who deserve support for their burgeoning research areas. And she has worked with area high schools on the Body Project to reach young students in hopes of preventing the disorders.

Levinson recently received $11.5 million in National Institutes of Health grant funds for three endeavors to better understand and address the issues: to investigate how the disorders may develop in childhood and adolescence, how they contribute to suicidal behaviors and how innovative personalized treatment may offer hope.

One of those grants is a prestigious New Innovator Award; Levinson is the first studying eating disorders as well as the first from UofL to receive one. That grant is to build models that incorporate not only eating disorders but also mental health issues and social determinants that accompany them before personalizing treatments.

Although eating disorders are treatable, there are limited prevention and treatment options available to many people. Levinson said that’s why it’s important for people who need care to seek out eating disorder specialists and why it’s important that students such as those in her laboratory are gaining this additional training. The use of telehealth opened up more options, too, for specialists to treat people from all over the country.

That’s also why scientists including Levinson are exploring the use of digital tools – maybe an app or a wristband or watch – to be used in everyday life to help support people with eating disorders to do well and not relapse as they work though their issues in the quest of healthier lives.

Levinson is passionate about helping people understand the problems and about developing treatments that really work for individuals to conquer them – and to offer hope.

“Life is so much better when you don’t have an eating disorder,” she said.