Calorie counting math with chili, rice, and corn

I get lunch at the soup and salad bar and usually get a container of soup to go. Often, the soup is chili.

Usually, I put a little bit of rice on the bottom from the buffet bar, then add a little layer of sweet corn kernels from the salad bar, and fill the rest up with chili con carne. The soup container is 2 cups.

Here’s the problem – I need the full container to feel satiated, but I want to limit my calories to about 500 per lunch. What is the optimum mix (by eyeball measurement) of chili, corn, and rice, for 500 calories?

Well, if you believe the figures that Google pops up with when you type in “calorie info [food]”, you’re looking at the following:
[ul][li]chili con carne: 256 calories per cup[]white rice: 206 calories per cup[]sweet corn kernels: 132 calories per cup[/ul]So a two-cup container of chili, straight, will give you 512 calories. You lose 50 calories for every cup of white rice you swap in for chili, or 124 calories for each cup of corn. So you could do one of the two options below and still stay under 500 calories:[/li][ol][li]1/4 cup rice, the rest chili1/10 of a cup of corn (about a tablespoon and a half), the rest chili[/ol]This makes a couple of over-simplifying assumptions: first, that the chili served at your local cafeteria is actually 256 calories per cup. This could vary a lot depending on how the chili is prepared (amount of fat added, type of meat, ratio of meat to beans, etc.) [/li]
Second, we’re also assuming the volume of the chili doesn’t permeate into the rice or corn when you add it. This is probably a reasonable assumption, since only the liquid part of the chili would be likely to do so; most of the calories would be in the solids, which would “drain” a bit but would probably still take up most of the same volume. If the chili is particularly soupy, then you might end up adding more chili, so your calorie count would end up higher than you expect.

Finally, note that the calorie savings are really in the corn, so the more of that you can stand, the better. Subsituting rice for chili probably doesn’t save you all that much in terms of calories (unless your cafeteria serves a particularly rich chili.)

Assuming chili is the lowest calorie item, the optimum mix is no corn and no rice. Since you add corn and rice, the optimum mix is the minimal values of these two items that you would accept. If you are adding corn and rice for fiber, corn is 125 cal/12 g of fiber per cup and white rice is 206 cal/0.6g of fiber per cup.

In short, if you are counting calories white rice is bad and corn is only marginally better. Use the least amount of each.

To follow up on what MikeS said, a nutrition information sheet should be available for the chili. If heavy on beans and light on meat, more chili is the way to go. Otherwise more corn is the way to go. In general, maximize the lowest calorie food (taking into account fiber) and minimize everything else.

Thanks for the responses! The chili certainly tastes pretty dense and meaty (I’m pretty sure it’s ground beef), so I think its calorie count may be higher. If it comes to 300 per cup, how does that change the math? And if I want both corn and rice in the chili, what’s the best eyeball-measured ratio?

EDIT: I haven’t seen a calorie chart at the restaurant, but I’ll look again tomorrow.

Even a chili heavy on the beans might be quite caloric. It’s hard to tell without knowing more information. (For example, Hormel’s Chili with beans has 40 more calories per serving than without beans.) I personally would not assume the meatless chili has fewer calories, nor would I assume the chili is the least caloric by volume of the three items in the OP. (I would think corn, personally, which does seem to be the case, but I also assume corn by volume is nowhere near the density of chili or rice.)

At 300 calories per cup of chili, you could do either about one cup of rice or about 2/3 cup of corn and fill the rest with chili.

If you want all three, there are any number of combinations you could use; a simple way to do it would be to take half of the above amount of rice and half of the above amount of corn, and fill the rest with chili. Or three-quarters the above amount of rice and one-quarter the above amount of corn. Or one-quarter the above amount of rice and three-quarters the above amount of corn. You see the pattern here. And, of course, if you start with any of the above recipes and increase the amount of corn or rice, then you’ll decrease your calorie count proportionally.

If the meat has a layer of oil or grease on top (say, from the meat) then that would be the thing to avoid. Fat is 10cal/g, while starch (rice, corn) or protein (beans have both) is 4cal/g. And as we all know, a decent amount of the corn is relatively undigestible material.

The short answer is that it’s very difficult to calorie-count reliably when eating food prepared by somebody else. If I google “chilli con carne” calories the first five results tell me:

270 cal/222g serving
226 cal/253g serving
264 cal/1 cup serving
452 cal/634g serving
387 cal/serving (size not stated)

Quoting calories per cup is not helpful, since how much chilli fits in one cup depends on the density of the mix. Quoting calories per unstated serving is even less helpful. But even if we look at the three quotes per weight, it’s obvious that the calorie density of chilli can vary wildly.

If you’re counting calories, you really need to prepare your own food, or confine yourself to foods which involve minimal preparation (like plain rice or corn).

Within the parameters of the OP, maximise the amount of rice and corn in your mix, and only take as much chilli as you need to make the mix tolerably tasty. The less chilli you have in the mix, the more accurately you can estimate the calorie count of your lunch.

But what is being ignored is the protein/satiation factor. If more protein = satiation with less (something the OP specifically mentions) then more of the high calorie chili might actually result in less total calories.

What’s your ultimate goal here? Weight loss? If that’s what you’re going for, I recommend giving up the rice and the corn. Cutting carbs seems to be the most effective way to lose weight for most folks, and the protein and fat in the chili will give you more satiation for a longer period of time.