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?
In Nora Ephron's best-selling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she
laments the sorry state of her 60-something neck: "Our faces are lies and our
necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is,
but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck," she writes.
"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's
great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at
the point where you understand just what matters in life. I...
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