In a country known for its love of the fast-food hamburger and a thick, juicy steak, something strange has been happening of late: People are eating less meat.

  By all statistical accounts, Americans have been cutting cut back on their meat consumption – though not necessarily by going vegetarian. USDA projections for 2012 show a notable decline in meat and poultry use, just as they did in 2011, while a 2010 American Meat Institute study found that 18 percent of Americans regularly eat meatless meals for health reasons.

  There is plenty of medical evidence in the case for consuming less meat. Studies have demonstrated that eating meat can help cause cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes and certain cancers – including those of the colon and prostate. Processed meat is even worse.

  The latest bad news for meat comes in the form a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health, which shows that eating even a small amount of red meat every day raises mortality risk by 13 percent, while a daily serving of processed meat every day comes with a 20 percent increased risk of mortality.

  In light of such news, you may very well be thinking of cutting back on your meat consumption. But just because you have decided to eat less meat – be it for health, environmental, cosmetic or other reasons – doesn’t mean you must become all-out vegetarian. In fact, these eat-less-meaters have even earned their very own term: flexitarian.

  “To be strictly vegetarian or vegan, in my view, is not 100 percent necessary for health,” says Dr. Donald Hensrud, editor of The Mayo Clinic Diet. “And what I mean by that is it’s what you eat 90 percent of the time, or 95 percent of the time, that makes the most impact.”

  So how can you join the “Eat less meat” movement? Well, one easy way would be by participating in what is perhaps its most recognizable offshoots: Meatless Monday. The initiative began in 2003, when founder Sid Lerner – a 72-year-old former ad man– worked with Johns Hopkins University to begin a public health awareness campaign regarding excessive meat consumption by encouraging people to give up meat at their Monday meals. “The goal,” says Tami O’Neill, project associate for The Monday Campaigns, “is for people to use the start of their week to contemplate healthier eating.”

  But O’Neill is also quick to mention that the Meatless Monday campaign is not recruiting people to vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. (“We’re completely for people eating meat or wanting to eat meat,” O’Neill says.) The idea is more for people to take the start of the week as an opportunity to think about what they eat, and to explore the ever-growing world of plant-based meals.

  While the notion of giving up daily meat may seem daunting at first, it’s often just a matter of mindset. “Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on what you can,” Hensrud says. “And come up with different meals that are tasty, healthy, practical, but don’t involve meat. Whether that’s including fish more often, or just starting out going plant-based instead of meat one day a week or something.”

  Plus, thanks to the Internet, it’s pretty easy to find quick-’n’-easy meatless recipes, some of which may even introduce your taste buds to some new foods and flavors. One such food is quinoa, the so-called “miracle grain” that eats like rice or couscous while also packing a great deal of protein. Who knows? Maybe you’ll like it so much you’ll try it again with chicken or fish. “A lot of it is not necessarily time, it’s planning,” Hensrud says. “And what could be a better return on investment than spending some time to improve your health?”

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  With so many “new” elements to the eat-less-meat movement, it may at first feel like nothing more than a trend. But in some ways, the move away from meat is actually a return to the days of the past. “We’re eating double the amount of meat that we were eating in the 1960s,” O’Neill says. “Our diet has rapidly changed,” she says, from sit-down meals with healthy sides into “…a fast food culture and a take-out culture, and we’re seeing that on our waist lines.”

  Health is a significant factor to wanting to cut down on meat, but there are plenty of other reasons to change your eating habits. Industrial farming takes a major toll on the environment, while some folks have trouble just getting past the idea of eating Wilbur. And then, of course, there is simple truth that cutting back on meat often means cutting back on calories, making it a great help if you are looking to cut a leaner figure.

  Such was initially the case for Carole Carson, author of “From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction” (Hound Press, 2007), a book in which she chronicles her efforts to shed pounds and get in shape just before turning 60 – efforts that included eating less meat.

  Carson says when she lost weight, her family members started losing weight, too: “And I wasn’t proselytizing!” Having the fellow motivators made all the difference.

  “I don’t think anybody can do this alone,” Carson says. “Changing you habits has to be done as a family or a community. You really need people around you to help you make a change.”