At first glance, sticking to a low-carb diet seems pretty straightforward: forgo sugary treats, reduce your intake of grain products and fruit, and aim to get most of your calories from protein-rich foods, non-starchy vegetables and heart-healthy fats. Once you begin counting carbs, however, you may notice that they tend to hide out in many of the foods you hadn’t previously thought twice about, including salad dressings and dipping sauces. Fortunately, low-carb options aren’t too hard to come by.
Go-To Salad Dressing
Olive oil should be the go-to dressing for anyone on a low-carb diet. It’s a flavorful, carb-free source of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, the kind that can help lower unhealthy cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. Other heart-healthy, carb-free, plant-based oils suitable for drizzling on salad include canola, peanut, safflower, soybean, sesame, flaxseed and walnut oils.
While a couple of tablespoons of oil -- along with a pinch of sea salt and a bit of ground pepper, as desired -- is enough to liven up any green salad, you can also combine it with a bit of balsamic vinegar and still keep it low-carb; 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar has less than 3 grams of net carbs. Net carbs are the amount of carbs your body actually absorbs from food, or total carbs minus fiber. Cider, red wine and unsweetened rice vinegars are all carb-free, but steer clear of seasoned rice vinegar, which packs about 6 grams of net carbs per tablespoon.
Olive oil is also an ideal base for more complex low-carb dressings. Mixing it with cider vinegar, a bit of mustard, some minced garlic and fresh chopped herbs makes a garlic-herb vinaigrette that’s both flavorful and low in carbs. Fresh herbs such as basil and chives are virtually carb-free, while dried herbs like oregano and thyme contain about 1 gram of net carbs per tablespoon. Yellow mustard and spicy brown mustard are carb-free, while Dijon and honey mustard each have about 1 gram of net carbs per teaspoon. If you’re a fan of garlic, remember that each clove supplies about 1 gram of net carbs.
Mayonnaise, sour cream and yogurt are all viable bases for creamy low-carb dressings, provided you choose the right kind. Plain mayonnaise provides no carbohydrates, while light or sweetened varieties can contain anywhere from 1 to 2 grams of net carbs per tablespoon. Similarly, regular sour cream has just under 6 grams of net carbs per cup, while light sour cream has almost three times that amount. Unsweetened, whole-milk yogurt has about 5 grams of net carbs per 1/2 cup. Blending mayonnaise with sour cream, cider vinegar, mustard and a small amount of non-caloric sweetener makes a quick, low-carb dressing for coleslaw.
Low-Carb Dipping Sauces
Using dipping sauces is an easy way to add variety to simple food -- especially appealing if your low-carb diet contains plenty of meat. You can use many of the same creamy bases to make dipping sauces for vegetables or even fish. Mayonnaise, for example, combined with a bit of mustard, horseradish, lemon juice and fresh parsley makes a nice low-carb dip for fish sticks. You can even create a low-carb version of your favorite honey mustard dip to serve with chicken or pork by combining mayonnaise with spicy mustard and a small amount of non-caloric sweetener.
Many traditional dipping sauce recipes incorporate soy sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce or other such condiments. These products are often sweetened: Soy sauce, for example, may have as little as 1 gram of net carbs per tablespoon or as much as 4 grams, and the carb content of hot sauce, garlic sauce, steak sauce and ketchup can be similarly wide-ranging. Always read labels and opt for unsweetened products when using these ingredients.
Low-Carb from the Market
When you’re short on time and can’t make a dressing or dipping sauce from scratch, it’s helpful to know what your best low-carb options are at the grocery store. Read the nutrition facts label to check the serving size and carb content of any product you’re considering, keeping in mind that certain types of dressings and sauces are more likely to be low-carb than others. Salad dressings that are labeled sugar-free are far more likely to be low-carb or carb-free. In general, creamy Italian dressing and balsamic vinaigrette are relatively low in carbohydrates, while Thousand Island and French dressings tend to be higher.
Premade dipping sauces that are low in carbohydrates can be harder to come by, but creamy ranch dip is often a safe bet. Checking labels is still important, however, as one brand of ranch dipping sauce may be carb-free, while another might supply 3 grams of net carbs per 2-tablespoon serving.