Campus life wouldn’t be the same without giant slices of macaroni and cheese pizza from Ian’s or succulent Gritty Burgers from the Nitty Gritty. Almost no culinary desire will go unfulfilled in this town if you’re willing to walk far enough down State Street or around Capitol Square.

But in the two-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Madison, few restaurants besides Subway have been willing to tell me what I’m eating on-site. I don’t expect, or even desire, a full ingredient list embedded into every menu. But weight-conscious University of Wisconsin students should at least be able to find out how many calories their lunch has in it easily and accessibly.

Despite the short-term expenses of reprinting menus and window displays, more information will benefit everyone. As we’re stuffing our faces in blissful ignorance, we’re paying for it later in our bellies and our wallets.

New York City recently implemented a law that requires calorie counts to be posted next to the prices on the menus in most restaurants. This applies only to fast food and chain restaurants with 15 or more outlets, which account for about two-thirds of restaurant traffic. A challenge from the New York State Restaurant Association to this provision was rejected in district court two weeks ago. Madison should enact a similar ordinance, but take it one step further and apply it to local restaurants as well.

Some Madison residents might argue that since they’re savvy adults, they don’t need the government shoving calorie counts down their throat every time they’re going to grab lunch. They know very well the Chipotle steak burrito they had for lunch yesterday had way more calories than a tofu stir fry they could have purchased from a cart on Library Mall.

While this is true, the nutritional qualities of restaurant food can often be maddeningly counterintuitive. For example, a chicken Caesar salad sounds like a fairly healthy choice. But if you go to Chili’s, this salad contains an incredible 1,010 calories, much more than a sirloin steak which only contains 540 calories. Similarly, a healthy sounding “Grilled Chicken Club” sandwich from McDonalds has more calories than a Big Mac.

It’s sometimes hard to perceive these massive differences in calorie counts. Studies show that most people vastly underestimate their calorie consumption from restaurant meals. Food is just so complex and laden with additives these days that even a dietician would have difficulty assessing which choice is a healthy choice.

But can’t you check calorie counts on restaurants’ online menus? You sure can, but I don’t know how many people really do that when they have 45 minutes to grab lunch on State Street between classes. Who is going to memorize all that information? You need to have it available when you’re ordering, which is so often an impulse decision rather than a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis weighing calories against taste.

Calorie labeling can even be good for businesses. If restaurants can market low-calorie alternatives or cut portion size without lowering prices very much, they can potentially make large profits from greater accessibility of calorie counts.

About 45 million Americans go on a diet each year. While studies show that only 10 to 20 percent of consumers will choose a low calorie food alternative when it’s offered, many are completely ignorant of calorie contents to begin with. Even for those who are not on diets, it’s essential that everyone have access to the information necessary to make healthy choices.

Wisconsin’s obesity rate for adults was 23 percent as of 2006, which was 28th among the states. Studies estimate that the direct and indirect costs associated with obesity added up to about $1.5 billion for the state of Wisconsin in 2000. Nationally, about 66 percent of adults are overweight or obese, costing an astounding $117 billion in 2000.

At a time when obesity is such a large and growing problem (no pun intended), we can’t afford not to know what we’re eating.

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.