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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today in "Your Health," we look at a campaign that is trying to get Americans to make a small dietary change to tackle some big health problems, like high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. The campaign plays to our tendency to start fresh on Mondays. It's called Meatless Monday. NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.

ALLISON AUBREY: Sid Lerner is a salesman who says he should be retired. He's 79. But he's no good at golf, and he still loves selling ideas. He learned the art of persuasion at the global heart of advertising.

Mr. SID LERNER (Salesman): We're now on Madison and 33rd.

AUBREY: Yep, Madison Avenue. He had a 50-year run as a successful ad man.

All right.

Mr. LERNER: My first office was a Look Building - 488 and Madison Avenue.

AUBREY: And one of the most successful campaigns he ever worked on was persuading millions of people to buy toilet paper.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Hoffmeier, the ladies are squeezing the Charmin.

Unidentified Man #1 (As Mr. Hoffmeier): In my store, squeezing's OK, Whipple.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Charmin's so squeezably soft, it's irresistible.

AUBREY: Lerner has a good laugh thinking back to these commercials. Making something dull seem irresistible was a leap, but he says it's really the same challenge he's got now.

You see, the concept he's trying to sell people on is Meatless Monday. This time, he's using the rhythm of the week. He says Friday is payday, Saturday's play day, Sunday is pray day. But Monday? It's ripe for change. And he wants people to cut back on saturated fats by eating meatless on Mondays.

Do you want to hop in a cab at some point? Because we're going up to the 70s, right?

Mr. LERNER: Yeah, right.

AUBREY: Okay.

These days, his office is just off Madison Avenue. He started his own little nonprofit and has a few employees. They spend their days blending social media and Madison Avenue techniques to spread the word.

Lerner raises money from foundations and collaborates with health experts. To make the message exciting, top chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali have gotten onboard. Tonight, I tag along with Lerner to a swanky restaurant on the Upper West Side.

AUBREY: Hello.

Mr. LERNER: We're going to Columbus and 77th. There's a restaurant there called Dovetail.

AUBREY: Sid's got his work cut out for him, selling Meatless Monday. At Dovetail, we find a packed dining room he'd like to convince.

Mr. LERNER: How do you make moderation sexy, fun, healthy, positive or doable -and not be a nag or a nanny?

AUBREY: You make the food fabulous. That's how.

Dovetail is run by rising-star chef John Fraser. He's backing the Meatless Monday campaign. He prepares a whole menu of meatless creations each Monday.

Ms. SARAH POST: I just had the tempura - the tempora with the curry. It was unreal. But I haven't gotten to my main course yet.

AUBREY: Sarah Post is here with her fiance and another couple. The guys have ordered a microbrew beer. Sarah and her friend are having glasses of white wine, and they started their meal with chilled sweet-pea soup.

Ms. POST: I'm actually not a vegetarian at all, but I like to eat healthy. And we had friends who told us that they served the vegetarian meals here on Monday. And we thought it was an amazing thing. It's been phenomenal.

AUBREY: Sid Lerner says the goal is to have people change their eating habits incrementally, and not feel as if they're giving up anything. The diners here tonight, he says, are proof that going meat-free one day a week does not take people out of their comfort zones, yet it may raise their awareness about how much animal fat they normally consume.

And Sarah Post's fiance, John Brummer, says people seem stoked about the concept.

Mr. JOHN BRUMMER: Yeah, it's an amazing new trend. It's unbelievable. It's like we're doing the Hollywood Monday thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: For his part, Lerner still eats meat and enjoys it. But his wake-up call came about a decade ago, when his doctor told him that his cholesterol and blood pressure were way too high, and that his diet was a big part of it. His father had died of heart disease and as he looked around, he saw these lifestyle diseases everywhere.

Now, meat is certainly not the only source of saturated fat, but when he researched the numbers on just how much meat Americans were really consuming, he was surprised.

Back in 1950, when he was a young man, the norm was about 2.8 pounds of meat a week. Jump forward to 2006, and consumption had gone up 50 percent - to 224 pounds of meat per person, per year. Lerner says he, himself, was right there, eating that much meat.

Mr. LERNER: You know, I always think of the steaks I used to eat.

AUBREY: Big rib eyes or sirloins that took up two-thirds of the plate - that was the thing to order.

Mr. LERNER: But I think a lot of it was status. It was like being the prettiest girl in class, and then you don't pay attention to some of the really nice people in class who aren't as pretty. And sometimes, that steak can be big and sexy - and dull.

AUBREY: Meat is now more of a condiment in his diet, he tells me, in between bites of Chef Fraser's avocado, watercress and tomato salad.

Mr. LERNER: I love avocados, and these are delicious. It's really, really great.

AUBREY: But the last thing Lerner wants is for Meatless Monday to become a campaign of food elitists in New York City. So through a partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, he's reached out to institutional dining facilities - from hospitals to school cafeterias. This will be the second year that some 80,000 Baltimore school kids will dine meat-free in their cafeterias on Mondays. And it's gone way beyond Baltimore.

Ms. KAREN CAMPBELL (Director of Wellness, Northern Kentucky University): The movement is just spreading like wildfire. I mean, not only are we reaching out to restaurants, but they're reaching out to us.

AUBREY: Karen Campbell directs wellness programs at Northern Kentucky University. She's brought Meatless Monday to her school and to restaurants in her town. And campus dining halls - from UC-Davis to Yale University - have come onboard, too.

Campbell says the interesting thing is that it's not necessarily the heart health message that motivates these college kids or young professionals. I heard that at Dovetail, too.

Mr. BRUMMER: To be conscientious, at this age, about our Earth and our environment's really important to us.

AUBREY: John Brummer says he wants to know where his meat is coming from, how is it raised, and would eating less of it be better for the Earth?

Environmentalist Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, says the answer to this is yes.

Mr. PETER GLEICK (Environmentalist, Pacific Institute): One of the biggest advantages of cutting back on meat consumption is the reduction in the water demand.

AUBREY: Gleick says people are shocked when they realize how much water it takes to grow the grain needed to feed cows to produce one ton of beef.

Mr. GLEICK: It takes 140,000 bathtubs full of water. That's millions and millions of gallons. It's a lot of water, and it's certainly far more water than we think about day to day, in our consumption to clean our clothes and flush our toilets and take our showers.

AUBREY: It's these kinds of sustainability issues that got Colleen Levine supporting Meatless Monday. She cooks meatless each Monday in her home, and she writes a mommy food blog called Foodie Tots.

Ms. COLLEEN LEVINE (Blogger, Foodie Tots): I was vegetarian for a couple years in college. I thought, I'll just eat pasta.

AUBREY: Starchaterian(ph).

Ms. LEVINE: Exactly. Not a very healthy path to take.

AUBREY: This time around, with a couple of kids and a tofu-fearing husband, she has to be a lot more creative.

Ms. LEVINE: So I'm chopping up a half a red bell pepper and some red onions.

AUBREY: For Meatless Monday tonight, she's doing zucchini stuffed with quinoa, peppers and some portabello mushrooms. The whole thing takes her about 15 minutes.

Ms. LEVINE: No one wants to cook a big, elaborate meal on a Monday night after work. So it's a good way to kind of start the week off on a healthy note, and usually meatless meals are a little quicker to prepare as well.

AUBREY: As any good ad man does, Sid Lerner takes time to measure his success. He got a question put into a public opinion survey recently, and found that about 20 percent of people had heard about the concept of Meatless Monday. But the meat industry does not think this is a trend.

Ms. JANET RILEY (Vice president, American Meat Institute): I'm not so sure that it's taking off among the general population.

AUBREY: Janet Riley is vice president of the American Meat Institute.

Ms. RILEY: It seems if you're really concerned about people's health, you'd want to have a - you know, Vegetable Tuesday or a Whole Grains Wednesday. But no, now we're telling people to give up meat, and that's just unfortunate.

AUBREY: Riley says she suspects that this movement is being pushed by people who care more about animal rights than human nutrition.

Sid Lerner says he can't see how his one-day-a-week campaign is a threat. He does still eat meat, remember. So far, he says, he's just really surprised by how many people are paying attention. But then again, he never expected to sell so much Charmin, either.

(Soundbite of Charmin commercial)

Unidentified Man #2: Squeezable softness. It's irresistible.

(Soundbite of music)

AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's "Your Health" on this Monday morning.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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