Book Review: The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating by Ken Goss

The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating by Ken Goss

Book Cover

This is not another diet book, although it will help you find ways to manage your food intake and energy output that are more in tune with your body’s needs. Instead, it offers you a different approach to learning to live in a complex body, in a world it was not evolved to live in, with a mind that also hasn’t really evolved to deal with all these problems in the first place!

Ken Goss, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating

Introduction

The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating is part of a series of self-help books from the Compassionate Mind Foundation. The Compassionate Mind Foundation define compassion as:

a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.”

Compassionate Mind Foundation

Wisdom, courage, kindness and being non-judgemental are key components of compassion. The Compassionate Mind Approach to eating involves getting a clearer understanding of how our problems have arisen. It also involves learning to tone down self-criticism and be kinder to ourselves before addressing our eating habits.

The first three chapters explain that the reasons for overeating are not our fault. Goss outlines the “cultural demands” placed upon us; the evolution of our “see-food-and-et-it brain”; and the social and personal meanings that are attached to eating. Chapters 4-6 introduce self-compassion and the compassionate mind approach. Chapters 7-11 are about understanding our current patterns and needs. These chapters are all in preparation for chapters 12 and 13 which contain the steps to changing eating habits. The penultimate chapter describes a writing exercise for managing urges to overeat. The final chapter summarises the contents of the whole book.  The organisation of the book is surprising- it’s chapter 11 before the focus turns towards what you’re actually eating. Having established in the early chapters how difficult it is to change eating habits, it makes sense that the book dedicates so much space to addressing those issues before introducing habit changes.

The following themes run throughout the book:

  • There are social, biological and psychological factors involved in overeating.
  • Difficulties with overeating are not our fault.
  • We can develop a healthier relationship with food by developing compassion for ourselves.

The book recognises that people’s relationship to food and eating is a complex subject. The author describes how there are many functions and meanings attached to eating. He discusses social, psychological, physiological and cultural factors. As a result, the book covers a wide range of topics with the potential for the amount of information to be daunting. Ken Goss acknowledges this and recommends taking it one step at a time.  He says, “If you only change one of two things that’s still useful” (Kindle location 90).  The organisation of the book makes it possible to work through the book at your own pace or dip back into chapters at a later date without re-reading the whole book. Chapters are divided into sections with sub-headings and each chapter ends with a short summary of the main points that the author wanted to make. Ideas are explained in a straightforward manner. The tone is gentle and encouraging. Explanations, exercises and case studies help the reader to test it the ideas.

Ken Goss explains that many factors that contribute to overeating and weight gain are outside the control of the individual.  This includes explaining what happens to our bodies when we diet and why it’s so easy to gain weight and hard to shift it. He also talks about the way our societies in the modern Western world don’t help- simultaneously encouraging consumption and then subjecting is to “moral and medical condemnation”(Kindle location 102) if we gain weight.  Ken Goss explains how shaming makes things worse:

What this approach does is challenge the way these problems have been seen to be the fault of those struggling to manage their eating. It is the blaming and shaming that are wrong – because these just make us feel bad and do not encourage or inspire us to try harder if we need to.

Ken Goss, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating, Kindle Locations 499-501

As well as explaining why overeating is not our fault, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating teaches how to cope with difficult emotions, including shame.  It teaches the difference between “compassionate self-correction and shame-based self-criticism” (Kindle location 2483).  The attention paid to shame in the book is very welcome as the moralising around weight and eating is pervasive.  Ken Goss makes a good case for learning to accept ourselves as we are and to be satisfied with a healthy body weight and or own body shape.  However, the “cultural demands” that associate certain body shapes with health and attractiveness aren’t going anywhere.  Learning to cope with the feelings those messages provoke seems critical if we are going to reject the dieting mindset and keep to a compassionate, health-focused approach in the long term.

The main aim is to learn to feed your body and provide it with appropriate activity to keep it as healthy as possible, and to help you to find and live with the body that your genetic history meant you to live in.

Ken Goss, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating, Kindle Location 3681

Is the Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating science-based?

To say something is evidence-based it needs to have robust testing supporting it.  In medicine, this could mean large-scale random controlled trials.  In nutrition that’s rarely possible and observational studies are more likely.  To say something is science-based it must also be based on scientific research and understanding. The author sticks to the scientifically supported advice when it comes to nutritional advice. The same kind of advice you will find in the NHS guide to eating well. The book draws on research from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Both these fields are relatively young in scientific terms. Further research may well overturn current conclusions. Compassion Focused Therapy is “promising” (Craig 2020, Leaviss 2015) but there are limitations to the research done so far.  As a result, I wouldn’t describe the Compassionate Mind Approach as science-based.  It uses current research, but in areas where knowledge is still developing.  None of this means that the information in the book is wrong or that the approach doesn’t work. It only means that, right now, there is no scientific proof of its effectiveness. What the book does offer is a plausible account of why overeating is difficult to overcome that is based on available research.  And a plan for developing healthy eating patterns based on well-established guidelines and the author’s clinical experience.  That’s more than can be said for a lot of diet programmes.

The author regularly refers to studies but only provides a few references in the back of the book. I would have liked to be able to see the sources behind more of the specific claims. For example, Goss says maintaining energy balance will see bodyweight return to normal:

However strange this may sound to habitual dieters, if the food supply continues to be adequate, and or activity levels don’t exceed our need for food, then gradually eating and weight return to normal

Ken Goss, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating, Kindle Location 778

I’m much more familiar with the argument that a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss and I’d like to be able to see the source of that information.

Conclusions

This book could be useful for self-critical overeaters who want an approach that doesn’t attempt to use shame to motivate and is honest about the time and effort involved. It encourages making changes in small steps and encourages us to be content with making changes that are important for our health rather than pursuing an impossible ideal body shape. It does not downplay how difficult it can be to change eating habits. Instead, it offers a structure for learning to identify problems and support ourselves while making those changes in a kind way.

This approach involves tackling difficult emotions and thinking about our personal history with food. This is not easy to do. But the book acknowledges this and is continuously encouraging the reader to go at their own pace. It teaches you how to do so in a kind and compassionate way. It is honest about the difficulties and prepares the reader to cope with lapses. I like this book because it instils optimism about the potential for long-term change but is realistic about what that involves. If you’re interested in changing your relationship with food for the long-term then it is worth taking a look.

Notes

  • The Kindle edition
    I read the Kindle edition. Worksheets and diagrams were difficult to read on the kindle itself. There are some typos in the text.
  • The programme isn’t suitable for everyone.
    The author recommends professional support through a GP or therapist if:
  1. You are very depressed
  2. You use laxatives, vomit or hurt yourself
  3. You are pregnant or seriously ill

References

Ken Goss, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating

NHS diet advice NHS Live Well

Compassionate Mind Foundation website

Craig, C. et al (2020) Compassion focused therapy: a systematic review of its effectiveness and acceptability in clinical populations, Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 20(4), pp 385-400

Leaviss, J. and Uttley, L. (2014) Psychotherapeutic benefits of compassion-focused therapy: an early systematic review, Psychological Medicine, 45(5), pp 927-947

Ingram, P., (2014) “Science” Based Medicine Versus “Evidence” Based Medicine, PainScience.com

Gallegos, J., (2017) Nutrition science isn’t broken, it’s just wicked hard, ScienceAlert.com