Aren't dates sugar bombs? Is stevia ok?

Many readers have been asking these and other excellent questions during our 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge, as we work to avoid added sugars and build healthy habits during the month of February.

We decided to collect dozens of your questions — sent in via e-mail, posted by members of our Facebook group and through phone calls — and send the most frequently asked ones to Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health.

Here are her answers to your FAQs about sugar and your health:

Q: Are dried fruits such as dates or raisins better for you than table sugar or honey? Why?

A: Dried fruits have natural sugar, in addition to lots of fiber and vitamins. They would be a great idea for a dessert if it is instead of highly processed refined grains with sugar such as cakes, cookies or muffins.

I would think of them as substitutions, and they are certainly a better choice than many other things we lump in the category of "sweets." But that does not mean that you should not track the portion or amount consumed.

Q: Why is it that I crave sweets after a meal?

A: What you're referring to is called "appetite," or the desire to eat, vs. "hunger," or the physical need.

Our appetite is regulated by conscious and unconscious centers in our brain, which is influenced by our genes, early life exposures, habits and previous experiences. It is tough to change that, but it can be done. Substituting highly processed sugary treats with fruit is one strategy. Dark chocolate in small amounts is an option once in a while. Distractions such as doing something else, or drinking water or even brushing your teeth, may be other strategies.

Q: Are stevia and erythritol safe sugar substitutes? Are they better for you than sugar?

A: Sugar substitutes have a few concerns, which are still being elucidated. The science is not yet solid on these.

There is an association between intake of zero-calorie sweeteners and increased risk of overweight and obesity. This may be just an association, not a cause-effect, but some studies have found that consuming very sweet, zero-calorie sweeteners in drinks may result in increased sugar cravings, and subsequently increased calorie intake.

There is a possibility that zero-calorie sweeteners favor unhealthy gut bacteria (microbiota) that are linked to being overweight, obesity and other disease.

However, if someone has diabetes and needs to cut down on real sugar, then sugar substitutes may be thought of as a temporary bridge, with the intention of weaning them off to unsweetened drinks.

Q: Is there any way to adhere to a no-sugar-added diet and make meals in advance? Some days I have energy for cooking, but most days I don't.

A: A better way to approach this is as a "healthy eating pattern" vs. a "diet." Eating healthy is not easy, but it can be enjoyable and delicious. Adherence is better if the food tastes good.

I would encourage you to look up Mediterranean diet recipes. Sauteing or roasting veggies in olive oil is not only very healthy, but also gives the vegetables more taste. Using herbs and spices is a way to enhance flavor of food without adding sugar.

In our modern lifestyle, there is a lot of pressure, and not much time, which is why meal planning and cooking ahead or prepping is helpful. I would recommend batch roasting a bunch of veggies on the weekend, then you can pull them out during the week, and serve with a lean piece of fish or some beans.

Other easy make-ahead meals are soups or chilis. If you have to resort to eating out once in a while, choose healthier options and watch the portions. You can never go wrong with fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and fish.

Q: What are your thoughts about skipping meals?

A: There is not one good answer to this very good question. Most people who struggle with their weight tend to skip breakfast and eat most of their meals in the evening. If meal skipping is resulting in overeating later, then it's not a good idea.

Everyone is different in that regard. Some people naturally do not eat breakfast or lunch, and that is fine, as long as their calorie intake is in check. I would not force someone to eat if they are not hungry.

On the other hand, frequent snacking is not advised, either.

Join us for the Star Tribune 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge. The goal is to avoid added sugar in February, take stock of how much you're consuming and make healthful changes. The Star Tribune is hosting a Facebook group to offer support, tips, facts and fun daily challenges: bit.ly/sugarfreestrib.