Aug. 28, 2000 -- Roy Walford, MD, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is preparing to eat lunch, and you can hardly blame me for scrutinizing his plate.
This is, after all, the man who has long claimed that calorie restriction with optimal nutrition (what he calls the CRON diet) can help people live for 120 years -- possibly even longer. This is also the man who, in an era of rapidly increasing obesity, has made the radical suggestion that Americans maintain a weight 10% to 25% below their "set points" (the weight the body naturally gravitates to). So who wouldn't want to see if the man practices what he preaches?
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Actually, Walford's lunch surprises me a little. On his plate, prepared by one of the two office assistants at his Venice Beach, Calif., home, is a meal not mentioned in his new book, Beyond the 120-Year Diet, an update of his 1986 book, The 120-Year Diet. It consists of a small slice of gourmet pizza topped with vegetables, grilled squash, and a fistful of penne pasta with tomato sauce. Walford assures me this is not his usual midday repast: "I ate out last night and there were leftovers, so I brought them home." But the man is not the ascetic one might assume him to be. In fact, a lot of assumptions about Walford are off the mark.
Not Your Average White-Coated Lab Rat
To be sure, Walford, 76, is unconventional. He sports a shaved head and a walrus moustache, and he lives a rather bohemian existence in a boarded-up commercial building just steps away from the Venice boardwalk -- a place where people come to whirl on skateboards, get tattooed, and sometimes espouse kooky theories. He has published fiction and poetry, dabbled in performance art, and among other expeditions, has trekked across Africa.
Yet Walford has also maintained a distinguished career as a gerontologist for more than 50 years. An adventurer as well as a scientist, he is best known for his two-year stint in Biosphere 2, the utopian greenhouse experiment in self-sustenance conducted in Oracle, Ariz. Because many of its crops failed, the Biosphere inadvertently became a human study in severe calorie restriction -- in fact, the only such study that has been done on humans to date.
But Biosphere also took a serious physical toll on Walford. Working six days a week in the fields left him with an injured back that ultimately required surgery. Worse, he suffered nitrous oxide poisoning because the structure's glass enclosure prevented ultraviolet light from penetrating and dissipating the gas, an agricultural byproduct. The resulting nerve damage has made it difficult for Walford to walk. When we meet, he sits somewhat hunched behind his desk the entire time. He appears more frail and diminutive than I expected.