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Can posting calorie counts save us from ourselves?

Calories are listed next to menu items in a Starbucks coffee shop in New York City.

There are some things you just don't want to know: the size of your friend's bonus; the origin of that sticky stuff on the kitchen floor; and the calorie count of the brownie you grabbed as you were paying for a salad with that low-fat dressing.

But enjoy that brownie in blissful ignorance while you can, because the calorie cops are on the move. Vending machines will now show how many calories are in that Coke, and restaurant chains are going to have to post how many calories are in your burger or your latte as early as next year.

Great.

I know the government's trying to help, but here's the question: Is our weight problem really caused by a lack of information?

I doubt it. As the amount of data has ballooned, so have Americans. In 1990, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring almost all packaged foods to carry nutritional information, fewer than one in four adults were obese. Now -- when even McDonald's openly posts calories -- more than a third are of us are.

No one has the chutzpah to claim that labeling causes obesity -- not even the soft drink makers or restaurant interests. But as "Seinfeld" fans will recall, dieters can get lulled into a false sense of security. Jerry and Elaine packed on the pounds after bingeing on frozen yogurt that falsely declared itself fat-free.

And in a frightening case of life imitating sitcom, a study of dozens of restaurants found that the calorie counts for diet dishes were too low by an average of 100 calories. I'd be willing to overlook that, but alas, my jeans aren't equally forgiving.

To be fair, all this calorie-labeling has made me change my behavior. It's driving me to eat foods that keep their bad news to themselves. These days, I get candy from the dish on a colleague's desk, not the vending machine. A head-in-the-sand approach? Perhaps.

But think about this: When Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, he doesn't fall until he looks down.

About the author

Beth Teitell writes for the Boston Globe. Her most recent book is called "Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth."

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