In general, the more processed a food is, the more sugar, fat, sodium and calories it has, along with fewer nutrients.

In general, the more processed a food is, the more sugar, fat, sodium and calories it has, along with fewer nutrients. When you rely on highly processed foods for the majority of your diet, studies show that you will increase your risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure. Conversely, we know that diets that include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and limited fat, sugar and sodium can ward off these diseases. Reading the ingredient list is key to avoiding highly processed foods, but here is a list of some of the most common ones to steer clear of.

Artificial ingredients: This includes synthetic dyes, artificial flavorings and even artificial sweeteners. In the history of food, these ingredients really haven’t been around that long. Many countries outside the United States have begun putting warning labels on foods containing artificial ingredients or have banned their use.

Refined grains: The more refined the grain is, the fewer nutrients you will receive. When grains are refined, the bran and germ are removed. This is the most nutritious part of the grain.

Ingredients you would not cook with at home: If you don’t know what the ingredient is or if it’s something you can’t even buy for use in your own kitchen, then it is highly processed and should be avoided.

Imitation foods: Foods pretending to be something they are not must be highly processed to replicate the real thing. This category might include pancake syrup, processed cheese products, fake meats, fruit-flavored drink powders, etc.

Pre-flavored, packaged products: Everything from oatmeal and yogurt to cream cheese and beverages can come in a variety of flavors. This usually means the addition of salt, sugar, fat or artificial ingredients. Instead of using these products, start with the basics and add your own flavorings.

Low-fat/ fat-free products: Think eating a fat free cookie is better for you than eating the real thing? When fat is removed from a food, it doesn’t taste as good or satisfy as well. Therefore, manufacturers add back sugars, salt or artificial flavors to improve the taste. Often, you are not saving any calories with these products, just shifting where the calories are coming from.

Trans fat: This is another name for partially-hydrogenated oils or fats. They were developed to replace saturated fats, but now we know that they cause more damage to our bodies than saturated fats do. Trans fats raise our LDL “bad” cholesterol while decreasing the HDL or “good” cholesterol.

High Fructose Corn Syrup: Despite mixed research on whether HFCS is less healthy than table sugar, its inclusion in a food is a marker of a highly processed food that should be avoided.

Simple rules to help avoid processed food in your diet:

Read the ingredient list. Choose foods that have few ingredients, preferably five or fewer. If the ingredient list includes several unfamiliar, unpronounceable names, you should reconsider the purchase.

Eat more real food. Fruits, vegetables and other “products of nature” should be the basis of your diet.

Visit your local farmer’s market or plant a garden to ensure that your food selections are as fresh and nutritious as possible.

If you want “junk food,” make it yourself. If you have to peel, chop and deep fry potatoes every time you want French fries, you are probably going to eat them less often. The same is true for cookies, cakes and other sweet treats.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.