It usually starts right around Halloween each year. Just as cooler temperatures send our active bodies into hibernation mode, the kids bring home bags of candy, which sit in big bowls on the counter while we dutifully enforce a daily candy limit on the children in interest of their health. Then, you catch yourself reaching for a chocolate piece on your way by the bowl one day. The candy easily carries you through to Thanksgiving, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ve only packed on a pound before Turkey Day, but that’s just the beginning of the “holiday 10.”

That may be why losing weight consistently tops the charts of the most popular New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. Millions of people are resolving to eat healthier, be more active and lose weight in 2015. Have you noticed the increased number of health-related ads you’ve seen in recent weeks? If eating healthier is in your plans, I have some sweet news. It may actually be a healthier choice to ingest real sugars instead of artificial sweeteners, but do your own research because the choice is highly personal and a hotly debated topic.

As a disclaimer, I should preface this by stating that eating anything in excess (except possibly celery) is not a great idea. So, while I encourage you to choose real sugars ”“ cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple sugar, agave, etc. ”“ it’s still important to monitor how much you consume of said sugar. Hint: Keep it to a minimum.

Artificial sweeteners can seem like a dream come true for your sweet tooth cravings, but the key here is the word “artificial.” These kinds of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharine, all have one thing in common ”“ they’re made with chemicals. Even some natural sugars, like agave nectar, stevia and xylitol, a sweetener made from birch bark, can contain added chemicals by the time they appear in the attractive packaging on store shelves. The verdict is still out on how safe many chemicals are long term, but when there’s a natural alternative available, my personal philosophy is always to err on the side of caution.

A teaspoon of granulated cane sugar has 16 calories in it ”“ a relatively small percentage of a 2,000-calorie diet. Still, it can add up if you fail to be careful. For instance, WebMD reports that there are 10 teaspoons of sugar in one can of non-diet soda. It’s easy to see why a diet soda with an artificial sweetener may be tempting if you’re into drinking sodas. However, are chemicals really a good alternative?

Aspartame, marketed under brands such as Equal and NutraSweet, is an artificial sweetener that has been around since the 1960s. Over the years, many rumors have circulated regarding the possibility that aspartame may be linked to increased cancer rates. Multiple studies, however, as confirmed by the American Cancer Institute, have been inconclusive on the issue. The debate continues, and the Food and Drug Administration has issued acceptable daily limits guidelines on the consumption of aspartame and other sweeteners.

Sucralose, perhaps most commonly marketed as Splenda, is an artificial sweetener that passes through the body, mostly without being absorbed by the process of digestion. Marketers tout it as a substitute for sugar in baking. Countries approved and began using the sweetener in the 1990s, and, like aspartame, studies on the long-term effects of sucralose on the body and the environment continue. cites reports that possibly link sucralose to migraines, gastrointestinal issues and thymus problems when used in excess of the FDA’s recommended daily intake.

The story is much the same with many other artificial sweeteners like saccharine, or sugar alcohols such as sorbitol ”“ many inconclusive studies, generally considered safe, but warnings against taking them in excess of the FDA’s recommendations. There’s even some evidence that artificial sweeteners trick the body and produce reactions that are counter-productive to weight loss efforts. Much information is available on the Internet, but if you’re spending time researching, make sure you seek out reputable sources. As much, if not more, misinformation is out there as there is actual scientific studies. Even so-called natural sugars can contain chemicals depending on how they are processed. Bottom line, read the packaging, and keep informed.

My recommendations? Stay away from soda.

Have you tried a tall glass of lemon water lately? Also, the more processed the food, the more likely hidden sugars are lurking somewhere. All of those packaged baked goods are probably a no-no, too. Try sticking to truly natural sugars ”“ the kinds you find in fresh, raw fruit, for example. Oh, and just because something says “no sugar added,” does not mean the product is sugar-free.

I heard something the other day that struck a chord with me, and it rings true for sweeteners as well: “Eat from a farm, not a factory.”

— Monica Pettengill Jerkins is a freelance writer for the Journal Tribune.

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