Opting for a salad isn’t always the healthiest option on the menu— especially if it’s a Caesar. These seemingly harmless greens can play host to fatty dressing, cheese, and refined grains galore.

Double Trouble — The Need-to-Know

In the past 20 years, the classic chicken Caesar salad has more than doubled in size and calories. And as if sheer volume weren’t enough, this salad’s toppers tend to stray far from healthy— and it all starts with the dressing. The classic Caesar dressing is made with egg yolks (to thicken, or “emulsify”), which are high in calories and cholesterol. Research hasn’t conclusively shown that egg yolks are especially unhealthy for everyone, but they can be bad news for those already at-risk for high cholesterol and cardiovascular diseaseDietary cholesterol and egg yolks: not for patients at risk of vascular disease. Spence, J.D., Jenkins, D.J., Davignon J. Stroke Prevention & Atheroschlerosis Research Centre, Robarts Research Institute, London, Ontario. The Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 2010 Nov;26(9):e336-9.. Either way, the recommended daily cholesterol intake is 300mg, and one large egg yolk contains more than 200mg— so don’t overdo it. And Caesar dressing can also pose a risk to the tummy in addition to the heart: Fresh Caesar dressings commonly include raw yolks, which can carry Salmonella, making it especially troublesome for those with weakened immune systems.

In addition to the dressing, the classic Caesar has a few more less-than-ideal toppings. Parmesan cheese may be a good source of calcium and protein when eaten in moderation, but those benefits are lost when it’s piled (or shredded…) on. Croutons made from white bread also include refined grains, which contain much less fiber and protein than their healthier whole-grain cousins. Croutons are also often cooked with oil or butter, which, while not all bad, add unnecessary saturated fat and calories to an already dense saladInfluence of hydrogenated fat and butter on CVD risk factors: remnant-like particles, glucose and insulin, blood pressure and C-reactive protein. Lichtenstein, A.H., Erkkilä, A.T., Lamarche, B. Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, MA. Atherosclerosis, 2003 Nov;171(1):97-107.. While topping a salad with protein can be a good way to turn that starter into a meal, fried chicken, shrimp, and certain cuts of beef can be another source of added fat— not to mention calories.

All Hail Caesar? — Your Action Plan

Having a healthy Caesar when eating out may be especially difficult due to portion size and lack of control over ingredients. (For example, Olive Garden’s grilled chicken Caesar has more calories and saturated fat than a Big Mac.) For a healthier version, start with a healthy lettuce. Romaine, the classic foundation for a Caesar, is an all-star, but try beefing up the salad without so many caloric add-ons.

If at home, whip up a dressing without egg yolks to cut down on cholesterol and risk of possible contamination. Instead of white croutons, go for the whole grain version, which is higher in vitamin E, protein, and healthy fats. Or, swap out the croutons altogether in favor of nuts, like almonds, with may help lower cholesterol while offering the same satisfying crunch. Just don’t look for that crunch from protein— grilled meat is generally a better bet than fried. Now, toss it all together and dig in!

Photo by Marissa Angell