Eating Disorders: How to Help a Friend


According to The Center for Eating Disorder at Sheppard Pratt (2015), eating disorders arise from a complex interaction of one’s behavior, genetics, biology, individual temperament and coping skills deficits, negative body image, poor self-esteem, trauma and sociocultural ideals. Anyone can develop an eating disorder. However, eating disorders typically occur in teenagers or young adults, and rates are higher in women than in men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.)

Whatever the cause, an eating disorder is a mental disorder that can have serious health consequences. In fact, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (2006) reported that “eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.”


The most common types are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA, 2016) describes anorexia nervosa as “weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate weight for height, age and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image.” Anorexia nervosa is usually distinguished by severe calorie restriction and the limitation of certain types of foods. 

Bulimia Nervosa 

Bulimia nervosa is described by the NEDA (2016) as “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binging and compensatory behaviors” that include self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive bouts of exercise and use of laxatives or enemas. Bulimia is associated with other behaviors such as self-injury, substance abuse and impulse control. 

Binge Eating Disorder

NEDA (2016) describes binge eating disorder as the most common eating disorder; it’s characterized by eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and beyond the point of feeling full, leading to feelings of shame, disgust and distress. Binge eating disorder is not associated with the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia, but nonetheless carries serious health risks, including clinical obesity, weight stigma and weight cycling (NEDA, 2016). 


If you suspect someone you know has an eating disorder, you can help. First, learn as much as you can about eating disorders. Then talk to your friend; don’t let your fear of upsetting him/her keep you from expressing your concerns. Don’t try to be a therapist; be a friend and express your love and support. Listen. Be aware that a person who has an eating disorder may try to deny it, so you may have to be persistent. At the same time, a person suffering from an eating disorder has to want recovery and cannot be coerced into it with threats, guilt or blame. Most of all, remember, it’s not about the food (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 2018).


Clemson Resources

National Resources

Other Student Health 101 Articles on Eating Disorders