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Calories: What is the 4/4/9 rule?
Calories: What is the 4/4/9 rule?

Wondering why your calories might be off? Read more about the 4/4/9 rule!

Miranda Loehle avatar
Written by Miranda Loehle
Updated over a week ago

Most macro counters have heard of the “4/4/9 rule”, the calculation that is often used to estimate how many calories are in a food based on its macros. It states that on average, 1 gram of carbs or protein contain 4 calories and 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories.

So to calculate the total calories for a food you’d sum: (grams of carbs x 4) + (grams of protein x 4) + (grams of fat x 9).

Simple, right? Well, almost! This calculation is an approximation. The 4/4/9 rule isn’t actually a rule, it’s an estimation based on how macros are broken down by the body in general.

Have you ever wondered why your logged calories are sometimes different from your daily calorie goal, even when you hit your macro targets? This discrepancy is actually expected, thanks to a few little-known calorie nuances. Even though Macrostax is all about tracking macros and less about counting calories, we know how important accuracy and trust are to our community. So we’re breaking it down for you below!

What is a calorie?

A calorie is the amount of heat energy that is needed to raise a kilogram of water by 1 degree celsius. Probably not what you were expecting! This may seem like a random definition, but the main takeaway here is that a calorie is a unit of energy. Not “good”, not “bad”, just energy!

What is more accurate, the 4/4/9 rule or the Nutrition Facts label?

The FDA allows SIX methods of determining calories for Nutrition Facts labels, with the 4/4/9 rule being one of them. Other calorie approaches actually take the physiologically available energy of that specific food into account, and are generally thought to be more accurate. This is why many Nutrition Facts labels don’t line up exactly with the 4/4/9 rule - the method of determining calories is often different.

In general, we recommend referencing the Nutrition Facts label because it is specific to that particular food. The 4/4/9 rule is the MOST general way of calculating calories, so if the Nutrition Facts label has a different calorie value it’s likely more tailored to the energy present in that specific food.

Does Macrostax use the 4/4/9 rule?

Yes! We use the 4/4/9 rule to calculate the number of calories that are represented by your daily macro targets. For example, if your daily macro targets are 200g carbs, 120g protein, and 50g fat, your daily calorie target would be:

(200 x 4) + (120 x 4) + (50 x 9) = 1,730 calories.

How are the calories calculated for the foods I log in the Macrostax app?

Your logged calories are based on the calories stated on the Nutrition Facts label. We do NOT replace any database foods’ calorie values with the 4/4/9 rule, since the Nutrition Facts label is generally more specific and accurate.

My logged calories never match my calorie target when I hit my macros. It’s driving me crazy!

We’ve heard from a lot of Macrostaxers that this mismatch is confusing. We get it! It’s very satisfying to nail your targets, and it’s frustrating when the calories seem “off”. The reason for the mismatch is because your calorie target is calculated using the 4/4/9 rule, and the calories in your logged foods are from Nutrition Facts labels.

While frustrating, the reason we take this approach is because it’s more accurate. It’s important to us to correctly represent your logged macros and calories in the food you eat, based on the most specific information we have. Even if that doesn’t perfectly match the math-based calorie target!

Why would my logged calories be WAY higher or lower than my calorie target? That can’t be right.

There are several factors that may come into play here. As mentioned above, there are multiple ways that food and beverage manufacturers can calculate calories on Nutrition Facts labels, and sometimes the characteristics of the food can impact the amount of available energy.

Here are a handful of scenarios to keep on your radar:

  • Alcohol: alcohol is not required to have a Nutrition Facts label. Some alcoholic beverages do feature labels with calories, and others don’t. Alcohol behaves like a “4th macro”, it is neither a carb, protein, or fat and actually has about 7 calories per gram of alcohol. If you are logging alcohol incorrectly you may notice a large calorie/macro discrepancy. Check out this article for more info on how to track alcohol!

  • Sugar alcohols: some foods contain sugar alcohols, which are carbs that aren’t fully digested by the body and therefore only have about 2 calories per gram. Erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol are examples of sugar alcohols that may be added to foods to increase sweetness with fewer calories. Some Nutrition Facts labels will adjust the calorie calculation to account for sugar alcohols (2 calories per carb gram), which results in a lower calorie count than you would get using the 4/4/9 rule (4 calories per carb gram).

  • Net carbs: this approach is sometimes used to approximate “digested” carb calories, often a focus for people on a low carb diet such as keto. Fiber and sugar alcohols are assumed to only contribute around 2 calories per gram, which decreases the total calories of the food. So a Nutrition Facts label could display 40g of carbs but only 120 calories, if 20g of those carbs came from fiber and sugar alcohols. Compared to the 160 calories you would expect if you used the standard 4/4/9 rule. If you’re seeing a large calorie/macro discrepancy on your scoreboard, check to see if it may be coming from calorie-free or low-calorie items that contain sugar substitute or supplemental fiber ingredients that use net carbs on their Nutrition Facts labels.

So what’s the takeaway?

Don’t sweat the calories! If you focus on your macros it’ll all fall into place. You’ll be fueling your body with the best ratio of carbs, protein, and fat for you. The 4/4/9 rule isn’t a “rule”, it’s one general way of estimating calories, and not every food fits perfectly into that box.


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