Summer is here, and that means everyone is ready to slim down. For many of my clients, that means they head straight for the salad bar. 

Unfortunately, I have to break the news that salads are one of the worst choices for weight loss. Depending on what time of eater you are, salads can be either extremely high in calories or so calorie/substance-deficient, that they couldn’t even sustain a bird.

Let’s start with the first salad scenario, since many of these meals have so much added junk in them that you end up eating as many calories as a double cheeseburger and fries. By the time you start counting the nuts, creamy dressing, cheese, bacon, dried fruit, avocado, croutons, and seeds on top of the lettuce, you may very well have an 800-calorie meal! 

The second option is an all-too-common summer dieting scenario. The person trying to lose weight sticks to a bowl of plain lettuce with a handful of plain chicken breast (or not). Boring! Those who make this choice understand they have to limit calories, but their strategy for doing so is not sustainable. This group understands that the add-on foods in many salad bars pack crazy calories, so they eliminate those options altogether. But, malnourished and bored with their bland choice, they often end up hitting candy jar later on due to hunger. Don’t make this too-common mistake.

So what’s your summer slim-down solution? Make your salad the starter to your meal rather than the star. You do need your veggies, so start with a salad and make sure it is not just plain lettuce. Add fresh vegetables like bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, or your particular favorite. And make it colorful so you get a whole range of antioxidants. Now, don’t stop there. I always advise clients to also order a sandwich or some soup. This makes a complete meal, which will leave you satisfied, energized, and in weight-loss mode!

If you absolutely want to make the salad the star of your meal, then you’ll need to add protein and a good source of carbohydrates. Protein will make you feel fuller longer and will increase your metabolism. So add chicken, salmon, tofu, or cottage cheese to your greens. 

You must also add whole-grain carbohydrates to feel energized and to cut sugar cravings.  So add quinoa, any kind of beans (black, kidney, garbanzo), lentils, brown rice, or corn to your salad for quick energy and balance.  Remember, the perfect mix for a nice meal is to combine all food groups: carbohydrates + protein + fat + vegetables. Now you’re ready to enjoy a meal and jumpstart your weight loss.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program).  He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online.  Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of two consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.

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