I love to understand how stuff works, and I was reading a really interesting clinical review (Cao, 2014) the other day that explained at a cellular level how unhealthy food can cause chronic disease.

It was fascinating!

The Assembly Line

A particular organelle (endoplasmic reticulum) in your cells uses a template of your genes to make proteins in an “assembly line” fashion. These proteins, once made, are then folded up so that they can be exported from the organelle and used.

Unhealthy lifestyle habits (ie, eating nutrient-poor foods, lack of exercise, smoking) create a stressful environment for your cells that prevents them from being able to fold the proteins correctly.

Additionally, the presence of misfolded proteins generates substances (reactive oxygen species) that subsequently stress your cell even more, creating a vicious circle of unfavorable events.

When misfolded proteins make their way down the assembly line, they don’t pass the quality check process and they are stored inside your cell instead of being exported.

The Death Sequence

Eventually as misfolded proteins begin to accumulate, your cell is identified as being faulty and a death sequence (apoptosis) is launched so that your unproductive cell can be replaced with a healthy, productive cell.

Thus, maintaining homeostasis….balance.

However, after a long period of time of chronic cellular stress due to unhealthy lifestyle habits, including eating nutrient-poor foods, the unproductive cells begin to die faster than the healthy cells can replace them.

Cellular Inflammation

When this happens among many of your cells simultaneously, your body begins to experience systemic cellular inflammation (with or without symptoms) and disease. This leads to premature death of not only your cells, tissues, and organs, but eventually your body.
Here are a couple of examples.

  • Chronic exposure of your cells to high levels of sugar (glucose) has been shown to cause an important protein (insulin) to be misfolded, which launches the ‘death’ sequence in the beta cells of the pancreas.

This is a precursor to and major characteristic of obesity and diabetes.

  • Chronic stress to the endoplasmic reticulum in your intestinal cells appears to lead to misfolded proteins (antimicrobial peptides and mucins), resulting in a weakened gut barrier.

This is a contributing factor to inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

A Mindful Lifestyle

Because cellular inflammation and chronic disease are slow to develop with symptoms that may not appear until significant cellular and tissue damage has occurred, it is often easy to remain oblivious to the result of how we treat our body.

As they say…..out of sight, out of mind.

However, I hope by helping you to better understand how unhealthy food (and other lifestyle choices) affects your cells and your body that you will become empowered to make healthier choices.

So nourish your body…and fold some proteins!


Cao SS, Kaufman RJ. Endoplasmic reticulum stress and oxidative stress in cell fate decision and human disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2014 Jul 20;21(3):396-413.