L to R, Jillian Winn, Cheryl Levinson, Brenna Williams
L to R, Jillian Winn, Cheri Levinson, Brenna Williams, from the EAT Lab

A University of Louisville-based program for high schoolers aimed at preventing eating disorders (EDs) and promoting a healthy body culture is planning to expand to serve more diverse student populations after receiving funding from the Jewish Heritage Fund (JHF).

The Body Project recently received a $125,000 grant from JHF, which provides grants aimed at improving health outcomes and supporting medical research in Louisville and Kentucky.

The funding will be used for training, materials, staffing and outreach for the Body Project to expand across Louisville, especially into the West End, a traditionally lower-income area with a high population of underrepresented minorities.

The Body Project has been used successfully in two private, all-girls Louisville high schools, Mercy Academy and Presentation Academy, over several years and is expected to be used in Louisville Collegiate School and Sacred Heart Academy beginning this fall. 

It is part of UofL’s Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab and Clinic founded by Cheri Levinson, associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, and directed by clinical psychology doctoral student Brenna Williams. UofL grad Jillian Winn is a study coordinator for the High School Body Project expansion.

Levinson is also medical director of the Louisville Center for Eating Disorders, the state’s only center of its kind.

Jennifer Shanks, a personal wellness counselor at Mercy Academy, called eating disorders a “hidden illness” made worse by poor role-modeling of body images and “exacerbated by social media messaging.” 

The EAT Lab is staffed by a team of postdoctoral fellows, doctoral, graduate and undergraduate UofL students. The team coordinates all aspects of the lab, including current work developing and implementing National Institute of Mental Health-funded research into new treatments and technologies for eating disorders and promoting outreach and support for those with eating disorders in the community.

A 2019 article published in the journal Body Image presented the first findings from Body Project implementation at Mercy and Presentation. The data showed the project was effective in decreasing feelings of social appearance anxiety, physical and social anxiety sensitivity, rumination, worry, perfectionism and guilt. 

More than 600 high school students have taken part in the project. A version of the Body Project has also been developed for college students.

In partnership with the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), local community volunteers are trained in how to present Body Project materials over four weeks. Participants are asked to assess eating disorder symptoms, such as a desire to be thin, body dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression, both before and after the project’s duration.

In the grant application, Levinson noted that eating disorders are diagnosed at younger ages than ever — sometimes as early as 12 years old. Last year, 10,000 deaths in the U.S. were blamed on eating disorders.

In addition, despite stereotypes that eating disorders affect only affluent, young, white women, they “impact everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation,” Levinson said. 

In Kentucky, the few prevention and treatment options that exist are not available to everyone who needs them. 

“Despite the high prevalence of EDs in children and adolescents in Kentucky, there are few prevention and treatment options,” Levinson said. “For example, there is no program in the U.S. that accepts Kentucky Medicaid for higher-level ED treatment, meaning that our children and adolescents in Kentucky supported by Medicaid are often left to die without treatment.”

Since 2012, the JHF has invested more than $69 million in more than 110 not-for-profit organizations.