Skip to main content

Associate Professor Rachel Goode works to achieve health equity for Black women 

by Nancy E. Oates

Rachel Goode, who joined the School of Social Work in 2017, was promoted to associate professor effective July 1, 2024.  

People who tiptoe around commenting on someone’s political choices seem fine with opining on another person’s weight. Both politics and body size are emotionally charged topics and hold great potential for corroding personal relationships. Yet society seems to ignore the pain felt by those being judged for obesity or an eating disorder.  

Rachel Goode, recently promoted to associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work, became aware of the widespread stigma and shame women in particular feel over body size and eating behavior during her clinical practice at college counseling centers and community settings. She had her own experiences making decisions about weight and eating, and she knew that obesity went beyond simply giving in to cravings. It may also reflect the presence of disordered eating, a complex problem that couldn’t be solved by dieting or sticking to a restrictive meal plan. 

“Society encourages restrictions [to lose weight],” Goode said. “But that can lead to disordered eating and shame. [Obesity] is not just the individual’s fault. It’s multi-level.”  

Research in the fields of obesity and eating disorders rarely intersect, yet Goode has bridged the divide. Her research focuses on disordered eating among Black women, a demographic often ignored by those treating eating disorders. The stereotype of someone with an eating disorder is a white, thin teenage girl, likely from higher socioeconomic strata. Black women are often left to suffer alone because they and others don’t realize their eating behavior is treatable. Clinicians struggle to recognize and name binge eating among Black women. 

“There’s no language culturally for [disordered eating], but it’s happening,” Goode said. “Doctors don’t always ask and often focus on losing weight.”  

The fact that clinicians assume Black women don’t have eating disorders created an opportunity for Goode to conduct research in disordered eating among Black women. She was among the first to shed light on the prevalence of binge eating among Black women and one of the first to publish papers investigating the relationship between disordered eating and food insecurity, said Cynthia Bulik, distinguished professor of eating disorders and founding director of UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.   

“Old myths and stereotypes about eating disorders do a huge disservice to all the people who don’t fit those stereotypes but need care,” Bulik said. “[Goode] knows that Black women will seek out treatment for weight control but won’t necessarily show up at an eating disorders treatment center because of those erroneous stereotypes.”  

Goode humanizes eating disorders in Black women, Bulik said, and she works to ensure they can access culturally congruent care.  

“Her work clearly places community first,” Bulik said. 

During a year in Americorps teaching children in Chicago public schools to read after she graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois, Goode solidified her desire to make a difference in the world more broadly than at an individual level. Her career needed to have a social justice aspect to it, and social work seemed like a good fit, she said. She earned her MSW and completed an MPH/Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh.  

Goode wanted to be an intervention researcher. Through friends in UNC’s MSW program, she learned that UNC was one of the few social work schools that had faculty with expertise to guide students in intervention science.  

“They were getting a degree and getting something more,” she said of students in UNC’s program.  

She visited Chapel Hill and cold-called the School of Social Work dean and a faculty member, and they made time to meet with her. She vowed to someday teach and do research at Carolina. Not long after, in 2017, she joined the faculty and established her Living F.R.E.E. [Focused on Reducing Excessive Eating] Lab.  

Studies have shown that Black women have the highest rate of obesity in the nation. They gain weight more rapidly than other groups. Black women don’t do as well as other racial and ethnic groups in behavioral weight management programs. Health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, are connected to obesity. Poverty, depression, stress and trauma also can trigger disordered eating. 

Millicent Robinson, an incoming tenure-track assistant professor at the School of Social Work, has been mentored by Goode and appreciates that Goode is bringing attention to a health challenge among a population so often dismissed and ignored in the disordered eating conversation.  

“She’s working to achieve health equity for Black women living with disordered eating,” Robinson said. “Not only is she conducting innovative research and implementing culturally relevant interventions, she’s doing so in a way that intentionally honors and respects the lived experiences of Black women.”  

Goode has conducted several intervention studies — she has received more than $1.7 million in funding since she joined the UNC faculty — and is working to develop scalable approaches to treating obesity that don’t exacerbate disordered eating. Her research has provided the first evidence of interventions to reduce binge eating and improve weight management among Black women with obesity, and the first evidence of feasibility of behavioral treatments for binge eating in this population.  

Part of Goode’s impact comes from her ability to meet people where they are, an essential factor for providing culturally congruent interventions, said Bulik. “We can’t help people with binge eating if we can’t reach them.”   

Goode’s research has shed light on food insecurity and binge eating. Not having enough nutrition signals a response in the brain to eat more.  

“The intervention we need is a systemic one first,” Goode said. “We must make sure everyone has enough food to eat.” 

Poverty, depression, stress and trauma also can trigger disordered eating. Goode’s intervention studies have cut across gender and race to retrain people to interpret hunger signals. She developed a digital tool, LISTEN, which is based on Appetite Awareness Training, to help people improve their awareness and ability to feel more in control of their relationship with food and prevent weight gain. She has trained community health workers to use the tool and has collaborated with the UNC Department of Family Medicine, examining the feasibility of this program in clinical research, thus scaling the impact of intervention. Her lab is located in the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis, which has extended her interventions to communities in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties.  

Though individual decisions play a part in eating behavior, many factors that influence eating decisions are beyond the person’s control — income, availability of healthy food options in one’s neighborhood, chronic stress, mental illness, coping ability and support resources.  

Goode has been validated by several accolades. In 2023, she received the prestigious Deborah K. Padgett Early Career Achievement Award, a prestigious national research honor from the Society for Social Work and Research. Previously, she received the Oprah Civic Leadership Award and an NIH Career Development Award. In 2020, she garnered UNC’s Junior Faculty Development Award. She was named a 2022-24 Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar, and she has served on the faculty of the UNC Center for Eating Disorder Excellence Summer Research Fellowship for the past four years. 

Goode’s colleague Mimi Chapman, a distinguished professor and associate dean for doctoral education at the School of Social Work, said Goode’s contributions aren’t limited to her research and clinical interventions.  

“She is one of the most positive, uplifting members of our faculty,” Chapman said. “You don’t run into her without her having something positive to say, something that makes you feel good that you talked to her that day.”  

Goode’s commitment also extends to student success in the classroom and through individual mentoring. She’s attuned to students and takes time to listen to them. She supports them when they’re going through difficult periods, Chapman said. “She brings a deep spirituality to all her actions.”   

Goode’s research and interventions may become more important as diabetes drugs such as Ozempic have shown success in reducing obesity. 

“These new medications have changed everything for folks struggling with obesity,” Goode said. “Medication takes away the food noise and silences the cravings. People feel hopeful they don’t have to feel so responsive to food. Then when for financial or supply reasons it goes away, it’s challenging to navigate.” 

Goode’s research may help people understand how to not gain weight back once they come off the medication. She hopes her interventions give people tools to reduce weight gain without exacerbating disordered eating.  

“I have a clinician’s heart with a scientist’s role,” she said. “It’s a good combination.”