Sure, they make your diet soda easier to swallow, come in handy individual packets and contain very few, if any, calories, but artificial sweeteners aren’t as sweet as they seem. Read the fine print and you’ll find that along with your morning coffee, you’re getting aspartame (found in NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet’N Low).

I view artificial sweeteners as toxic substances to the body and its metabolism. A rule of thumb for good nutrition is to eat foods that come from the earth. These, you might say, are kryptonite to that ideology. The list of side effects from artificial sweeteners is vast, but common reports include headaches, dizziness, mood changes, abdominal pain and cramps, memory changes, fatigue and physical weakness. Sound familiar? Time to clean out the pantry. Read the labels and consider tossing anything containing these ingredients.

Though those in the food industry and even physicians might advise that by using these products, weight loss will follow, the opposite is actually true. A recent study in Behavioral Neuroscience, as well as my personal clinical experience, support this. The theory is that upon consumption, the body reacts as if the artificial sweetener is glucose, and stimulates the release of insulin (shown in animal studies). This would cause the activation of the body’s storage mode. Fats and sugars are more likely to be stored than burned. If the sweetener is consumed by itself as part of a low-calorie beverage, then the body is trying to store glucose that isn’t there, so hunger for sugar is stimulated. That hunger triggers a stress response in the body that is most likely the cause of some heart palpitations, headaches, and muscle cramps. So, for a moment of simulated sweetness, the metabolism switches off, the body is put into storage mode and hunger for sugar is stimulated.

There are several studies showing that consumption of aspartame can lead to excess levels of phenylalanine (an amino acid that is safe in small doses). The end-result is decreased levels of serotonin in the brain. Because serotonin is the chemical messenger between brain neurons, its decrease can lead to depression, anxiety or panic attacks. Anti-depressant medications work by increasing the amount of serotonin available between neurons. Before you turn to prescription meds, try eliminating these products from your diet.

Artificial sweeteners slow your metabolism, causing more weight gain than loss. A healthy nutrition plan means avoiding all foods and drinks containing them, especially for those suffering from any of the aforementioned symptoms. In my experience, giving up diet soda, for example, almost always results in improved blood sugar control, and decreased body weight and symptoms.

But I thought Splenda was natural?

Sorry. Splenda is a sugar molecule at its base, but has chlorine attached to it. Researchers claim that Splenda has more in common with pesticides (supposedly the molecule was discovered when trying to make a new pesticide) than it does with natural sugar. Skip the Splenda.

If I can’t have diet soda, what can I drink?

Go for the H2O. The first thing you should increase is you intake of pure water. Make a solid effort to consume at least eight glasses a day. If you struggle, try keeping a pitcher of water with sliced lemons, limes, oranges, and/or cucumbers in the refrigerator. A little natural flavor never hurts. Fresh brewed green iced tea is another healthy alternative that provides a small amount of caffeine, along with antioxidants and other substances which decrease the risk of cancer and diabetes. If you need the sweetness, use a small bit of real sugar, honey, or if you can find it, stevia (an herb known for its naturally sweet leaves).