How to Live to Be 120.

Diet may be the key.

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
6 min read

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?

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.

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.

The notion that humans may live 50% longer if they eat less is extrapolated from work with animals, Walford says. The first research showing that calorie-restricted rats live longer than their regularly fed counterparts was done in 1935 at Cornell University. Subsequent studies over the last 65 years (Walford estimates that there are 2,000 to 3,000 papers on the topic) have produced similar results and have also indicated that animals on calorie-restricted diets have a lower incidence of cancer, arteriosclerosis, and autoimmune disease. Results have been so promising that the National Institute on Aging (NIA) now spends $3 million a year to study caloric restriction, mostly in rats and monkeys, and has funded Walford's work in the past.

Walford has been doing pioneering calorie restriction work with animals since the 1960s. He's found that the animals not only live longer, they live better. For instance, his 1987 study in the Journal of Gerontology found that when mice of varying ages were placed on rotating rods to test their muscle strength and coordination, calorie-restricted 31- to 35-month-old mice performed just as well as their 11- to 15-month-old counterparts. Likewise, the older mice did as well on maze tests, indicating that they had no apparent decline in mental function. "People say they don't want to live to 120 because they think they're going to be frail for 40 years," says Walford. "They don't realize that calorie restriction extends the period of viability and good health."

Exactly how the CRON diet may extend life is not known, but several theories have been proposed. "One is that animals, when faced with a shortage of food, will rechannel energy from growth and reproduction into maintenance and repair," says Walford. Other theories suggest that the diet may limit cell-damaging free radicals, decrease blood sugar and insulin, or prevent the immune system from deteriorating.

Walford concedes that we don't know for sure whether what's true for rodents applies to humans, although ongoing studies at the University of Wisconsin and the NIA using monkeys as subjects may give us a better idea. The monkeys, studied for 10 years, have demonstrated a lower rate of diabetes than their regularly fed counterparts. They've also maintained higher than normal levels of the hormone DHEA, which is associated with youth, according to Mark Lane, PhD, head of nutritional and molecular physiology in the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the NIA and principal investigator on the study.

Again, the closest thing to a human study is Walford's Biosphere experiment. After two years of functional caloric restriction, the inhabitants had declines in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood glucose, which Walford says are markers of aging. Lane, however, isn't convinced -- despite his great respect for Walford's work. "The study shows that you can produce positive health changes in people through calorie restriction, but the data I've seen don't show anything about aging."

Walford, who is currently editing a video documentary about Biosphere 2 and doing animal research at UCLA, has himself been adhering to the CRON diet since 1984. Today he carries about 134 pounds on his 5-foot-8-inch frame. "My set point is about 155," he says. "I was a Big Ten wrestling champion at the University of Chicago and I had to train down, so I know it pretty well." To stay underweight, he consumes about 1,600 calories a day, but says he doesn't feel deprived. "You get accustomed to it after a while," he says. "If you change your eating habits to include more whole food (beans, rice, vegetables, and fruit), then you'll eat less."

Walford eats out about once a week, usually at one of the neighborhood's tonier restaurants. At home, on a typical day, breakfast might be a banana-strawberry milkshake or half a cup of millet with wheat germ and fruit. Lunch is a large bowl of fish chowder (made with skim milk) and a whole-grain roll or a sardine sandwich. For dinner once a week, Walford has a mega-salad of his own creation, consisting of an assortment of raw vegetables (lettuce, spinach, peppers, broccoli, sweet potato, onions, cabbage), rice and beans, and dressed with expensive (get the best, he stresses) balsamic vinegar and olive oil. A dinner roll and nonfat yogurt with apricots for dessert round out the meal. The diet is hardly fit for a gourmand, but it's not quite as austere as a monk's menu, either.

The 21st century, Walford says, will be the age of the "long-living society." In the near future, there will be advances in modern biology that will extend life spans. "But calorie restriction is the only thing that we can be relatively confident works now. If you want to hang around to take advantage of the newer techniques when they become available, this is what to do now."