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The Tipping Point

Forcing restaurants to list calories on their menus, as one local politician proposes, is just unappetizing.

There are some things you just don't want to know: the size of your best friend's bonus, the origin of that sticky stuff on the kitchen floor, the calorie count – please, no – of the brownie you grabbed from the display case before paying for that salad with low-fat dressing.

Better enjoy that brownie in blissful ignorance while you can; once again, the public-health killjoys are out to ruin your fun. A bill before the Massachusetts Legislature would require restaurants with 10 or more locations nationally to list nutritional information for all standard items – in most cases, on the menus or menu boards themselves. Similar measures are already the law in New York City and King County, Washington, and comparable actions are being considered nationwide. I'm sure the bill's sponsor, state Senator Richard Moore of Uxbridge, and other lawmakers mean well, but as Tony Soprano might say between bites of ricotta pie – all due respect, but let's be honest with ourselves: Is the cause of America's weight problem really a lack of information?

The evidence suggests not. As the amount of data available has ballooned, so have Americans: The US Food and Drug Administration began requiring almost all packaged foods to carry nutritional information in 1990, the early days of an era in which the obesity rate among adults climbed from 23 percent in a 1988-1994 governmental survey to 32 percent in a 2003-2004 study. No one, not even the head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, has the chutzpah to claim that labeling causes obesity. (Although, who knows? Most of us never would have believed obesity is "contagious," either.) But Peter Christie, president and CEO of the Southborough-based trade association, says his members are being wrongly villainized. "The National Restaurant Association says that we eat out about 24 percent of our meal occasions," he tells me. "The concern is that America is obese, and we need to do something about it. But if the grocery stores presently are where the consumer is getting 76 percent of their meals, and it's all labeled, then isn't that a sign that labeling doesn't work? Isn't that a sign that we should be thinking more in terms of a balanced life? . . . I'm not a nutritionist, but when I was a kid, I lived on a bike. I was always riding to one game or another." (Christie is 56, which means he was a boy when McDonald's opened in 1955, and its "large" soda was 7 ounces. That's one-sixth the size of the 410-calorie "Hugo" the chain rolled out as a summer promotion – but, hey, portion control is an issue for another day.)

Aside from the cost to restaurants and the buzz kill for customers who like to scarf in peace, what's the downside of full disclosure? A false sense of security. As Seinfeld fans will recall, 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, two prominent New York frozen-dessert chains agreed to stop using the term "low calorie" after an investigation by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found the offerings were more fattening than advertised. But even labels that comply with the law can lead a would-be dieter astray. Moore's plan, for example, allows for a 20 percent margin of error in nutritional calculations. If only my jeans were that forgiving.

Americans routinely tell pollsters they want more nutritional information, but talk to individual dieters, and the story's more nuanced. "I was so horrified when I found out an Au Bon Pain wrap had [about] 650 calories and 25 grams of fat," one lifelong dieter told me. "But it hasn't helped me lose weight. I just go to places where the nutritional value is still a mystery – much like my weight, because I refuse to get on the scale."

Of course, what legislators fail to realize is that Americans do count calories when they go to a restaurant. We guesstimate, which suits everybody just fine. "Hmm, so I had three pieces of French bread with butter. That's, what, 20 calories apiece? And the shrimp scampi, that's like 120 calories right there. And tiramisu for dessert – I'd peg that at 75 calories." The dieter has "kept track" and still enjoyed the meal.

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, right?

Beth Teitell, a Boston-based writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at bteitell@gmail.com.

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