I reach into my bag, the wrapper crinkles, and, suddenly, I think I want to climb a mountain. Well, I take that back. I’m rather un-athletic, my legs are disproportional to my body, and recently I’ve developed an incessant rattling cough, so I know that that’s a poor idea. But I feel like I should want to climb a mountain. That’s at least what the little man admirably clinging to the mountain’s face on the Clif bar’s wrapper seems to be telling me.
There is something arrogant about a protein bar. It is disguised as food, but it isn’t. It’s fuel. It’s “nutrition for sustained energy,” cuisine reduced to a calculated science. It’s a sludge-y, fibrous reminder, to the many among us with impressively type-A personalities and a penchant for efficiency, that those calories we expend on “fats” and “sugars” are a waste. In an impressive show of physical strength and multitasking, that little man is silently reprimanding us whilst clinging to that sheer rock face. With his muscles and animated dexterity, he might as well be telling us that we are a waste of space if we even consider that cookie sitting on the counter.
The protein bar is the perfect embodiment of the overachieving psyche when it comes to food. It can be guzzled down while walking, and sits in our stomachs like a dense brick, distracting us from our hunger and dissatisfaction whilst we go about the myriad activities we think really give our lives meaning. “I might want to vomit, but at least I got to Paper Source today,” we internally claim, as the brick moves southward. Eating a Clif Bar delegates food to a place of subordination, of service. In pulverizing such naturally beautiful fruits and nuts to a blob, we’ve asserted our authority; we have ensured that there will be no revolt. Autonomy and individuality of ingredients has been squelched by pasty, utilitarian mushiness. The Clif bar will serve us. Food be damned, we will reign supreme.
We live in society that dreads the unpredictable. We love to know exactly what’s going on, at all times, and precisely why. Uncertainty makes us sweat, makes our minds race for a means of taking back control. A protein bar is easily comprehended, a static point in an apparently volatile and uncontrollable world. We know that it contains precisely 250 calories, which is approximately how much we will burn off in twenty-five minutes on the elliptical later, or perhaps in fifteen on the treadmill. It has precisely fourteen percent of our daily recommended intake of carbohydrates, which leaves room for that roasted butternut squash that’s been sitting in the fridge since dinner last night. And, underneath it all, we know that in precisely two hours, we will be hungry yet again, and will be given another taste of momentary freedom as we choose our next source of fuel.
I am here today to stand up to the protein bar. I am sick of its claims, of its insinuations, of the pitying looks muscular, Lululemon-clad women holding Clif bars in Whole Foods give me as I buy my yogurt covered pretzels. I am not lesser for my distaste for peanut-y sandpaper-y paste. I should not need to hide my bounty under stacks of Kale and Quinoa to feel justified as a human. I like sugar. I like fat. I like to indulge.
Yes, my name is Erin O’Brien, and I enjoy food. Don’t look so shocked. I know “indulge”, in modern consciousness, conjures up grotesque, Bacchanal images of fats and oils. Of appalling luxury, of obese limbs reclining on velvet and furs. But I enjoy being full. I enjoy my jeans pressing into my belly after a bowl of ice cream. I enjoy the smile that creeps onto my lips after an undoubtedly fantastic meal, the taste of curry or garlic or oil still lingering on my tongue. I will, if given the opportunity, eat a cupcake over a grapefruit, even if it means spending a few extra minutes at the gym today.
Saying it, I realize how ridiculous the above statement is. The very fact that a cupcake compensated by gym time is considered indulgent is emblematic of the problem that plagues us, and which the protein bar has exacerbated. It has created this absurd nutritional ideal—with unbelievable amounts of protein and very little fat and sugar—to which we hold everything else. All the good—the fatty, the sticky, the sweet—seems excessive in comparison and, thus, if we consume something nutritionally “un-sound”, we are racked with guilt about it. Or we pedal furiously on a bike until the memory of it disappears.
One of our greatest luxuries as humans is our ability to create joy and beauty with food. I am willing to bet that if a panda could, he would soak his bamboo in butter and garlic too. But he can’t. And we can. So why shouldn’t we? We have been bestowed with a unique ability for gastronomic creativity, for self-induced sensual enjoyment. Who are we to deny ourselves that? Why should we settle for “carrot cake” in the form of whey protein, or a “chocolate chip brownie” that’s really just crushed almonds and unsweetened cocoa powder, when we can have the real thing? The very names of these bars – chocolate chip cookie, coconut cream pie, blueberry crisp – are a subtle admission that we are naturally inclined towards things of the sweet and indulgent variety. So, why not the real thing? Sure, it’ll put you back a few hundred more calories, and a whole lot of guilt, but life is short. Isn’t contentedness worth the cost?
And so, protein bar, I denounce you. I denounce your arrogant culinary reductionism and quiet judgment. I denounce what you claim, that food is no more than a fuel, a slave to our human actions and impulses. I denounce the light in which you’ve cast good food, making it ugly and feared. I denounce your brown wrapper, which makes me feel soft and pudgy with its stark ruggedness. I denounce your nutrition facts, so balanced they make me nauseous. I denounce everything you stand for. Gym body and nutritional balance be damned, I want to be happy. I want to indulge.