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Feb 22, 2012 4:43 PM

'Flexitarian' diet light on meat, but doesn't go 'cold turkey'

(NBC) - So you're trying to get healthy and you know you should be eating less meat, but you may not be ready to go "cold turkey" on that steak and become a full-fledged vegetarian.

Turns out you're not alone.

More and more people are becoming flexitarians.

For 44-year-old Ray Heflin, a meal wasn't a meal, unless it included a piece of meat.

"Growing up in my family, we had meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes, that's just what we had," he says.

After his doctor diagnosed him with high cholesterol and prescribed a daily medication, Heflin says he realized his diet was probably sabotaging his health.

He met with registered dietitian Judy Caplan, who urged him to cut out the meat.

"I think he was especially motivated after he had seen the doctor and was really upset that his cholesterol was elevated and he did not want to go on any medicine," she says.

That's when Heflin tried something new, what Caplan calls a "flex" diet, where he would eat vegetarian on most days, but could allow himself some meat occasionally.

Caplan says more and more americans are adopting this flexitarian way of life.

"Today people are broadening their idea of what's healthy and what they can eat, so it's not just the meat and potatoes," she says.

The evidence is all over the grocery store.

Take a look at the growing number of "meatless" products, like veggie burgers and tofu hot dogs.

One study found sales of these products have grown 21 percent in just the last two years.

Another survey by AllRecipes.com found that more than one-third of their 1400 members said they ate less meat in 2011 than they did the year before.

Caplan says Americans have a tendency to over consume meat because of long-standing beliefs that it's is the best source of protein, and veggies and grains alone won't keep us full, but too much protein could be a bad idea.

"You don't need a ton of protein. You just need enough for tissue repair and body function. After that it draws too much calcium from your bones. So we really need to concentrate on the other food groups that build health," she explains.

Ray Heflin has been flexitarian for the past year.

He says the results on his health have been pretty dramatic.

His bad cholesterol dropped 40 points and he no longer needs to take medication.

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