Here’s why Pumpkin Spice Lattes (and other comfort foods) can Actually be GOOD for your Mental Health

Ladies and gentlemen, it is that time of year again! You know the one: pumpkin EVERYTHING. I was at Trader Joes the other day and some gluttonous, pumpkin-obsessed monster possessed me and before I knew it I was checking out with 5+ pumpkin flavored food items. Every year it comes like clockwork. We may joke about it, but most of the time we feed into it (or at least I do!) So, what is with the obsession?! Take the pumpkin spice latte for instance. People go absolutely bananas over it! Why is this? Perhaps it has something to do with the perfect combination of sugar to boost your mood and caffeine to give you energy. Although, with that explanation, just about every drink on the Starbuck’s menu would be getting the same amount of attention. Perhaps those factors are important, but there is also another layer to this latte.

One explanation is that it actually triggers something in our brains and we associate the taste with positive experiences, sort of like a comfort food. Because pumpkin is generally a seasonal delicacy, its taste can remind us of memorable or exciting aspects of the season. If pumpkin isn’t your thing, think about all the other fall flavored delights that might be your kryptonite: caramel apples, apple cider, or even roasted butternut squash for those without a sweet tooth. All of these foods have the ability to conjure up positive memories of the season which in turn can boost your mood. I know for me a pumpkin spice latte summons memories of college football, changing leaves, bonfires, hayrides, and pumpkin patches. It is much the same experience as a classic comfort food such as macaroni and cheese ushering memories of long weekends spent at Nana’s house (another example from my library of memories).

From the experiences I described above, we know that food has the powerful potential to elicit memories. Have you ever noticed that certain smells can invite a flood of memories about a specific time, person, or place? I guarantee that most have experienced this phenomenon, but why does this happen? This is because your olfactory bulb, the place in your brain that processes smells, is closely connected to other parts of your brain called the amygdala and hippocampus that store memories and handle emotion. Furthermore, since your sense of smell is intimately connected with taste, certain tastes also have the potential to trigger certain memories. In the case of comfort foods, these memories are then often linked with positive associations and voilà: the food has the potential to positively affect your mood.

As with all things, moderation is key. I would never advise a client to boost their mood by drinking an entire bottle of wine. Just as I would never advise a client to attempt to solve their depression by binging on comfort foods. Sure, a glass of wine can boost mood, and so does a serving of comfort food, but binging on either of these items causes harm. These suggestions are not meant to be stand-alone or substitution for proper mental health treatment or medication, they simply serve as a guide for small steps in boosting your mental health. Please feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates if you have any questions or would like to talk to a counselor about mental health services. Otherwise, if you are feeling a little down, stimulate your senses with some scrumptious seasonal delights! Below is a family recipe of one of my favorite seasonal treats: homemade gingerbread!


By: Hayley Nelson


Homemade Gingerbread

This recipe was my great grandmother’s and has been delighting my family for generations. I am so happy to be able to share it with you here.


  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • ½ cup molasses
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbs powdered buttermilk
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 ¼ cup flour
  • 8 x 8 x 2 pan



Put the ingredients together as you would a cake. First, cream the softened butter and beat in the eggs one at a time (if making a bigger batch than listed above). Add the molasses slowly, then add the sugar. Sift the remaining ingredients together, except for the buttermilk. You want to mix in the buttermilk alternately with the dry ingredients ending with the dry ingredients. Mix well. Pour into a greased pan and bake at 350F for 35-40 minutes. Enjoy!



Serani, D. (2011, April 7). Comfort foods improve moods. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from website: 201104/comfort-foods-improve-moods


Why smells can trigger strong memories. (2015, August 6). Retrieved from


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