Low-cal diet advocate fights Gehrig's disease

For nearly three decades, Dr. Roy Walford has lived in a red-brick industrial building a half-block from the daily carnival and weekend hucksters of Venice Beach, Calif.

And for much of that time, Walford, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who pioneered the concept of a severely calorie-restrictive diet as a path to human longevity, was commonly viewed as a bit of an oddball, even in a neighborhood known for eccentric behavior. His unconventional lifestyle, be it studying with yoga masters in India or living for two years as the chief physician at the Biosphere 2 experiment, did little to enhance his image as a serious scientist.

"I think at UCLA, Roy was regarded as the bald guy doing the aging work," said Rick Weindruch, who was mentored by Walford and now runs a gerontology lab at the University of Wisconsin. "He wasn't very mainstream."

Although his notions of living to 120 years aren't mainstream yet, Walford's groundbreaking gerontological research linking a calorie-restrictive diet to prolonged life in laboratory animals has been gaining wider acceptance. Now many scientists believe that Walford has been onto something all along, though many years of study will be needed to test his anti-aging theories in humans.

The colorful 78-year-old author of "Maximum Life Span" and other books may never learn whether his theories passed muster in human clinical trials recently begun. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease two years ago.

"If there's no cure for the disease, I certainly won't reach 120," said Walford. "I probably won't reach 90."

Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a fatal affliction of the nervous system that eventually causes patients to lose their ability to move, to swallow and eventually to breathe. Patients typically live two to five years after diagnosis, although roughly 10 percent survive another decade or more.

Walford, whose mind is as sharp as ever, is prepared for the next question — should the disease claim him within a decade, does that somehow discredit his life's work? Absolutely not, he replied, it would be like conducting an experiment on a single mouse.

In fact, he believes it's his spartan diet that has slowed the progression of ALS within his body. That's why his low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet, despite the diagnosis, remains largely as it has for the past two decades. He still eats mostly vegetables, some fruits, some whole grains and a little bit of meat.

"The diet didn't bring this on," said Walford, who says his daily caloric intake is roughly half of what the average American eats. The 1,600 calories that he eats in a day is less than a Big Mac, large fries and vanilla shake at McDonald's.

How he got into this

Walford's near obsession with diet and aging began in the early 1970s when he embarked on what has become essentially a 30-year study into the biology of aging. Among his first and most important findings came in his UCLA laboratories where he discovered that mice who were deprived of regular food rations outlived their normally fed counterparts by as much as two years — nearly doubling the normal life span. In addition, the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease was lowered and there seemed to be little impact upon mental and physical function.

"You have to appreciate the world of gerontology 25 years ago when there were about 10 labs in the country focusing on the biology of aging, and Roy's was one of them," said Weindruch, who is conducting calorie-restrictive diet experiments on monkeys. "Today there are hundreds of such labs."

Another Walford endeavor that may well have been ahead of its time was his participation in Biosphere 2, an experiment inside a self-contained ecosystem meant to test whether humans could one day colonize the moon or Mars. The two-year experience that sealed eight crew members, including Walford as chief medical officer, inside a three-acre glass dome complex unexpectedly became the first controlled study of physiological changes in humans on low-calorie diets.

Shortly into the experiment, often derided as more show than science, the team quickly learned that it wouldn't be able to produce as much food as originally believed. Walford seized the opportunity to study the effects of his diet.

Although not long enough to be conclusive for humans, the results seemed to confirm the diet's healthy benefits. Men lost nearly 20 percent of their body weight, women dropped around 10 percent. Blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides all fell by 20 percent or more to extremely healthy levels. And all team members demonstrated an enhanced capacity to fight off common illnesses like colds and flus.

Is it worth the downsides?

But even if the diet is eventually completely validated, is it worth it? Ignoring the practical issue that calorie-restrictive dieters risk malnutrition if they aren't extremely careful, critics question whether longer life is worth being on a diet that even Walford admits is near starvation level.

"Human beings are not only concerned about longevity, but also about the quality of their lives," said Joanne Ikeda, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. "What Walford really doesn't consider is the impact of constant caloric restrictions on the psychological well-being of the individual and society as a whole."

Humans can become irritable, withdrawn and obsessed with food when placed on a super-sparse diet like Walford's, said Ikeda. During World War II, a group of American conscientious objectors volunteered for a study to probe the psychological impact of a semi-starvation diet.

"At first, the men who wanted to do something for their country had a great feeling of camaraderie, that they were in this thing together," said Ikeda. "In fairly short order, they became isolated, friendships broke apart and the men spent most of their days reading cookbooks and planning meals they were going to have when they left the study."

As for the holidays, dieters say they do just fine. Since they are accustomed to eating much less than the average American, it's not a big deal to resist the temptations of the Thanksgiving table. Also, their bodies often can't tolerate foods high in sugar or fat anymore.

"You don't have to be on the diet every meal, just on average," says Walford. "You eat too much one today, you eat less tomorrow. What's important is keeping your weight down."

Largely because he has stuck to his low-calorie diet in spite of his disease, Walford has had little trouble keeping a weight of about 130 pounds on his 5-foot, 8-inch frame. But his diet can only do so much.

The man who once captained his college wrestling team and was an accomplished gymnast now navigates his expansive loft apartment mostly via wheelchair. When he rises, he balances himself by leaning on a series of crossed mountain climbing ropes attached to opposite ends of his walls.

In the past year, he's begun to wear a neck brace to steady his head. His voice, too, has been damaged by the disease and he sometimes wears a microphone to be heard only a few feet away.

Walford presses ahead with his research despite his declining health. He works in his home office to complete a book and a documentary about Biosphere 2.

He is understandably concerned that his physical limitations may cause him to violate a personal philosophy nearly as important as his diet. He calls it his "Signpost Theory of Life."

"If you spend all your time in the laboratory, as most scientists do, you might spend 35 years in the lab and be very successful and win a Nobel Prize. But those 35 years will be just a blur," said Walford who once hitchhiked across central Africa. "So I find it useful to punctuate time with dangerous and eccentric activities. ...

"Right now, my only adventures are talking and walking."