Summer is for grillin’ and smokin’ meats. Brisket, ribs, tri-tip, sausages, pork shoulder, chicken, salmon… I’m making myself hungry. What goes perfectly with grilled and smoked meats? BBQ sauce.
Whenever I mention how much I enjoy barbecue, someone says to me, “Wait, Mark, can you have BBQ sauce?” I get it. BBQ sauce is often on the list of condiments to avoid on low-carb, Primal/paleo, or keto diets. People are surprised to find out I can and do eat BBQ sauce regularly.
I’m not just being rebellious and ignoring my own rules here. Although there is some important nuance that I’ll cover in this post, it’s definitely possible to enjoy BBQ sauce even on low-carb and keto diets.
There’s nothing inherently un-keto about BBQ sauce. It’s basically tomatoes, vinegar, and spices. No problems there. I know some keto folks will say tomatoes aren’t allowed on keto, but I think that’s nonsense. No vegetable is de facto forbidden on a healthy keto diet if you ask me. “But tomatoes are fruit.” Okay, fine. You can still eat them on keto.
Some people can’t do nightshades, so they would want to avoid tomatoes, but that’s an issue of intolerance, not carbs or ketosis. Separate issue.
The biggest considerations here are how many carbs are in BBQ sauce and whether it’s a good way to way to spend your carb allotment. Already this is a nuanced question. There’s a lot of individual variation in carb tolerance and what constitutes an optimal keto diet for a given person. As a starting point, the Keto Reset recommends that most people aim for 50 grams of carbs per day without counting above-ground, non-starchy vegetables. For some people, this might be too high; for others, it’s too low.
I’ve also recommended a flexible limit of 18 grams of carbs per meal (unless you’re doing OMAD). Some brands of BBQ sauce have 18 grams of carbs in a single two-tablespoon serving. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend devoting your entire carb allowance to a small ramekin of sauce. On the other hand, Primal Kitchen Classic BBQ Sauce only has 3 grams of carbs per two tablespoons. Other brands are somewhere in the middle.
You can easily stay under your carb limit and enjoy a big plate of meat, a side of grilled zucchini, and a generous pour of a lower-carb BBQ sauce. Given that most of the carbs in a sauce like Primal Kitchen’s come from tomatoes, I see no reason to avoid it.
Aren’t Sweeteners Prohibited on Keto?
Again, this isn’t a straightforward question. On principle, most keto folks choose to abstain from sugar altogether. A small amount of sugar won’t necessarily knock you out of ketosis, but it’s certainly wise to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened BBQ sauces. There are more keto-friendly options anyway.
Some brands use “natural” sweeteners like date paste or molasses. These aren’t inherently un-keto either, in my opinion, aside perhaps from the carb load. Still, if staying in ketosis is important to you, it’s wise to invest in a blood glucose meter and test your reaction to these ingredients. If you don’t experience a massive blood glucose response, they’re fine to consume within reason. Likewise for sauces sweetened with stevia or sucralose (although I’d avoid the latter myself).
With most sweetened BBQ sauces, you’ll probably have to stick to a small serving to keep carbs reasonable. Of course, there are unsweetened options. Not to toot my own horn again, but Primal Kitchen Classic BBQ Sauce and Golden Barbecue Sauce are both unsweetened and organic.
Carb count isn’t the only reason I prefer unsweetened sauces, though. Since I’ve been eating a Primal and keto diet for so long, I find that I don’t enjoy uber-sweet BBQ sauces anymore. They mask the flavor of the meat rather than enhancing it. My palate is more attuned to prefer savory flavors now.
What About the Other Ingredients?
Beyond the sweeteners, are there other ingredients in BBQ sauce that would make it not keto-friendly?
That depends on what type of keto diet you’re following. With dirty keto or IIFYM (if it fits your macros), anything goes in terms of ingredient quality as long as you stay with your macros. For those of you with more Primal sensibilities, the answer is yes, some BBQ sauces contain ingredients you probably steer clear of—modified corn starch, caramel color, and the aforementioned sucralose, for example.
Strictly from a keto perspective, you don’t have to avoid those ingredients. Caramel color won’t knock you out of ketosis. Nevertheless, many folks believe that the whole point of keto is to support metabolic health, so food quality matters. I obviously agree. However, we should acknowledge that other people only care about carb counting.
So I AM Allowed to Eat BBQ Sauce on Keto?
Let’s reframe that question. You’re allowed to eat whatever you want, especially if you’re not trying to stay in ketosis 24/7. I’m not trying to be pedantic, though. The answer is: Yes, it’s possible to include BBQ sauce on a keto diet, maintain ketosis, and still have enough carb allowance to eat plenty of foods like vegetables.
Your best options are to buy an unsweetened variety or make your own. I have a recipe on MDA and in The Keto Reset Diet Cookbook. Secondarily, you can choose a store-bought option made with a sweetener you’re comfortable with and adjust your serving size based on how many carbs it contains.
How to Eat Keto at a BBQ Joint
You can basically guarantee that restaurant BBQ sauce options are not going to be keto-friendly by most people’s standards. If you’re lucky, they might offer a Carolina-style mustard-based BBQ sauce, but even those are often made with honey or sugar.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the heck out of some great BBQ from your favorite restaurant. Here are some tips:
Check the menu before you go so you know what to expect.
Bring your own sauce. I’ve been toting salad dressing to restaurants for years, so I have no qualms about this.
Ask for your meat to be served “naked.”
Avoid anything described as fried, battered, or sweet.
For sides, stick to steamed vegetables, collard greens, and salad.
Pass on the rolls and biscuits, corn, baked beans, and potatoes. Restaurant coleslaw is often loaded with sugar, unfortunately, not to mention dodgy oils in the mayo dressing.
Dry rubs usually contain sugar, too. Personally, this isn’t something I stress about. The amount of sugar you’ll actually get in a serving of brisket or pulled pork is probably pretty small. I don’t think you’ll ruin your keto diet by consuming a small amount of dry rub. Worst case scenario, you’re out of ketosis for a few hours before slipping back in. However, this is a personal comfort issue. If you have a zero-tolerance policy for sugar, ask your server about how everything is prepared (or better yet, call ahead).
Keto Should Be Enjoyable
I’m writing this post in the first place because as a purveyor of BBQ sauce, I’ve so often been asked if BBQ sauce is keto. This tells me that there is still a lot of dogma in the keto world. It brings to mind an image of a keto dieter sitting over a plate of meat, looking forlornly at a bottle of BBQ sauce, believing they must abstain or get kicked out of the keto club forever. Tragic.
Deciding whether to eat BBQ sauce shouldn’t be a major source of angst. As with so many other dietary decisions, you have to consider your specific context, health, and values. Don’t let other people set hard-and-fast rules for you. If you’re suffering through bland, boring meals, or your diet stresses you out, it’s not going to be sustainable. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Use your head… and watch your carbs.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.