If you've dabbled with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, the thought of never eating a cheeseburger again may have seemed daunting.
But if it's the potential health benefits — such as a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers — you're after, doctors and health experts say you don't necessarily have to become a vegetarian to experience them.
"Would we all be better off if we dramatically reduced meat to the point of one meal a week? I would say yes," says Dr. Bob Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But the reality is that, from a public health perspective, if we just get some modest reductions in our intake of saturated fats, it'll have a big impact."
The American diet is high in meat consumption, says Lawrence, who works in association with the Meatless Monday Campaign, a national health campaign aimed at preventing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
In 2000, total meat consumption, including red meat, poultry and fish, reached 195 pounds per person — 57 pounds above the average annual consumption in the 1950s, according to the USDA Agriculture Fact Book, 2001-2002, the latest version. In all, Americans consumed about 7 pounds more red meat, 46 pounds more poultry and 4 pounds more fish and shellfish than in the 1950s.
The goal of Meatless Monday is to help people reduce their consumption of saturated fat 15 percent by 2010, which translates to cutting out meat and high-fat dairy one day a week.
What's in it for you
Eating foods that contain high levels of saturated fats raises your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.
Lawrence has been following the premise for years. While he still eats meat when it's served at a dinner party, when he has a choice he opts for fish, or pasta in marinara rather than a thick cream sauce.
"This isn't a plea for people to become vegetarians," Lawrence says. "It's a plea to use the beginning of the week as a stimulus to reflect and say, 'OK, I've overdone it this weekend. Now I need to get back on a better diet and think about my health.' "
Research has shown other benefits to watching your meat intake — particularly the well-done variety, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Cooking certain meats at high temperatures may produce chemicals that are experimental animal carcinogens and are believed to be potential human carcinogens. Other studies have shown that high intakes of well-done, fried or barbecued meats may increase the risk of developing colorectal and potentially breast cancer.
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"Meat needs to be cooked enough to kill E. coli or salmonella, but if you eat a lot of charred, burnt meat, it's very likely to be unhealthy," says Robert Turesky, a biochemical toxicologist with the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health.
How to cut back
If you're thinking about cutting back on meat, start by watching your portion sizes.
Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and an employee wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic, says many people don't realize that the body can't store protein. If you consume more than you need, you'll just eliminate it through your urine and put an extra strain on your kidneys to metabolize it.
Jamieson-Petonic recommends limiting portions of meat to 3 to 4 ounce servings. It might be difficult at first, but try making the change gradually, with the goal of reducing meat to a quarter of your dinner plate. Fill another quarter with whole grains, and the other half with vegetables or fruit.
"Some of these restaurants are offering 24-ounce steaks," she says. "That's much too much."
© 2012 Forbes.com