Thursday, October 14, 2010

What To Drink Part 5: Chocolate Milk for Recovery?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
In our last installment in the What To Drink series, we discussed flavored milk and how schools are fighting a battle with the dairy industry to get added sugar out of their students' milk.  For more on the previous installments, please check them out: 

What's Wrong With Juice?
What's Wrong With Milk?  Part A 
What's Wrong With Milk?  Part B

What's Right With Milk?  Part A
What's Right With Milk?  Part B

The Flavored Milk Fiasco

Today, let's talk chocolate milk.  While we know that added sugars aren't great for anyone, especially if that added sugar is high fructose corn syrup, there are some proponents of chocolate milk.  Chocolate milk is actually used as a recovery drink after intense exercise.  Why?  It generally has a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein, which refuels the body with quick energy that opens the floodgates to bring protein into muscle cells for their replenishment and rebuilding.  

According to the study Chocolate Milk as a Post-Exercise Recovery Aid, published in 2006 in the Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, chocolate milk is just as effective as Gatorade for recovery after exhausting exercise.  Here is the summary of the study from WebMD:
In the study, nine male cyclists rode until their muscles were depleted of energy, then rested four hours and biked again until exhaustion. During the rest period, the cyclists drank low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade, or Endurox R4. During a second round of exercise, the cyclists who drank the chocolate milk were able to bike about 50% longer than those who drank Endurox, and about as long as those who drank the Gatorade.
The findings suggest that chocolate milk has an optimal ratio of carbohydrates to protein to help refuel tired muscles, researcher Joel M. Stager, PhD, Indiana University kinesiology professor, tells WebMD.
But the most puzzling result of the study, experts say, was why Endurox -- which has the same carb-to-protein ratio as the chocolate milk -- fared so poorly. Researcher Jeanne D. Johnston, MA, tells WebMD it may have to do with the different composition of the sugars in the milk. Another theory is that the sugars in the milk may be better absorbed in the gut than those in the Endurox.
Despite the findings, there are some drawbacks:
1.  It was funded by the the Dairy and Nutrition Council, Inc.
2.  The sample size of 9 athletes is a bit small to make large conclusions.
3.  The study only looked at endurance athletes. 
4.  There was no control or placebo used to test against. 

Even taking into account these drawbacks, the researchers were on to something.  The conclusions still hold up after additional studies putting them to the test.  For example, a subsequent study along the same vein as the first was presented at the 2010 American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) annual meeting.  Researchers looked at ten cyclists and included a double-blind, randomized design as well as a placebo control.  Their conclusion: 
Chocolate milk provided during recovery can improve subsequent time trial performance in trained cyclists more effectively than an isocaloric CHO [carbohydrate] supplement. This may be due to a faster rate of muscle glycogen resynthesis.
This is not an isolated case.  There have been a multitude of studies researching chocolate milk as a recovery aid.  While most still have small sample sizes and are funded by the dairy industry, the consensus is clear: chocolate milk does aid recovery at least as good as the protein-containing, high carbohydrate recovery sports drinks.  Need more evidence?  Here is some of the recent research (emphasis mine):

Chocolate Milk And Glycogen Replenishment After Endurance Exercise In Moderately Trained Males
CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that ingestion of fat-free chocolate milk following an endurance exercise bout supports glycogen replenishment to a greater extent than a non-nitrogenous, isocaloric beverage. (from 2010)
Endurance Exercise Tolerance as a Function of Fuel Replacement During Recovery
CONCLUSION: The high-calorie high-carbohydrate, cocoa containing beverages were more effective recovery aids as compared to low-carbohydrate, fluid replacement beverages and water. (from 2008) 
Effects Of Chocolate Milk Consumption On Leucine Kinetics During Recovery From Endurance Exercise 
CONCLUSIONS: Findings suggest chocolate milk consumption during recovery from a moderate intensity run attenuates whole body protein breakdown compared to a carbohydrate beverage.  (from 2010)
Chocolate Milk Consumption Following Endurance Exercise Affects Skeletal Muscle Protein Fractional Synthetic Rate and Intracellular Signaling 
CONCLUSION: Chocolate milk consumption after an endurance exercise bout enhanced kinetic and translational outcomes of skeletal muscle protein synthesis during recovery. Athletes can consider fat-free chocolate milk as an economic nutritional alternative to other sports nutrition beverages to support post-endurance exercise skeletal muscle repair. (from 2010)
Effects Of Chocolate Milk Consumption On Markers Of Muscle Recovery During Intensified Soccer Training
CONCLUSIONS: Post-exercise CM [chocolate milk] consumption provided equal or possibly superior muscle recovery responses to an isocaloric, high-carbohydrate recovery beverage following a four-day period of intensified soccer training.  (from 2009)
Acute Effects Of Chocolate Milk And A Commercial Recovery Beverage On Post-exercise On Muscle Damage And Endurance Cycling Performance
CONCLUSIONS: These findings indicate no difference between chocolate milk and this commercial beverage as potential recovery aids for cyclists between intense workouts. Comparatively, CHOC is more economical per serving while providing similar benefits in recovery. (from 2009)
Milk: the New Sports Drink? A Review 
There has been growing interest in the potential use of bovine milk as an exercise beverage, especially during recovery from resistance training and endurance sports. Based on the limited research, milk appears to be an effective post-resistance exercise beverage that results in favourable acute alterations in protein metabolism. Milk consumption acutely increases muscle protein synthesis, leading to an improved net muscle protein balance. Furthermore, when post-exercise milk consumption is combined with resistance training (12 weeks minimum), greater increases in muscle hypertrophy and lean mass have been observed. Although research with milk is limited, there is some evidence to suggest that milk may be an effective post-exercise beverage for endurance activities. Low-fat milk has been shown to be as effective, if not more effective, than commercially available sports drinks as a rehydration beverage. Milk represents a more nutrient dense beverage choice for individuals who partake in strength and endurance activities, compared to traditional sports drinks. Bovine low-fat fluid milk is a safe and effective post exercise beverage for most individuals, except for those who are lactose intolerant. Further research is warranted to better delineate the possible applications and efficacy of bovine milk in the field of sports nutrition. (from 2008)

Review of Chocolate Milk

Now, does chocolate milk offer THE BEST post-workout recovery?  To answer that, you need to weigh the pros and cons of chocolate milk.

  • It's an effective recovery drink after intense activity.
  • It's cheaper than sports drinks.
  • Liquid nutrition may be easier on the stomach after intense activity.
  • It's quicker to ingest and to digest. 
  • Chocolate stimulates the brain's pleasure center. 
  • Chocolate contains antioxidants and studies have shown it may promote heart health. 

  • Chocolate milk might not be necessary or as effective after ALL types of exercise.
  • It needs refrigeration.
  • It's highly processed, pasteurized and homogenized, and likely comes from cows fed an unhealthy, grain-based diet complete with hormones and antibiotics.
  • It's artificially sweetened with a quantity of sugar equivalent to a can of soda. 
  • The sugar is usually high fructose corn syrup, which leads down the road of fructose problems like fat storage, increased appetite, insulin resistance, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. 
  • Dairy can bring a host of problems even to those not lactose-intolerant.  See Dr. Cordain's Paleo Diet Blog reasons for eliminating dairy. 
  • The Paleo Diet also discourages chocolate for being acidic and an allergen (perhaps not for the cocoa so much as the caffeine or additives like milk, soy, and grain-derived ingredients).  
  • One carton of chocolate milk might not be sufficient for recovery:
According to CrossFit Reno's post: Chocolate Milk: Recovery Drink??? Yes or No, a little chocolate milk may not provide enough replenishment.
According to Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., director of Sports Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, the milk industry has gone to extreme efforts to convince the public, especially athletes, that chocolate milk is the "one and done" product for athletes to drink for muscle recovery. "And it's not," says Clark. 
Finally, Clark says that 8 to 12 ounces of chocolate milk will not be enough for recovery. An athlete working out for two to three hours would need more carbs and protein. In terms of protein, athletes engaging in endurance exercise typically need around 0.55 to 0.64 grams of protein per pound of body weight, while strength-training athletes may need 0.73 to 0.77 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Those doing recreational or moderate endurance and strength training only need 0.36 to 0.54 grams per pound of body weight. Clark also says that a college athletes training for two to three hours would need approximately 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight to completely restore glycogen. While chocolate milk can contribute, it contains only 8 grams of protein and 36 grams of carbohydrates per 8 ounces.  

Real Food Instead

As an alternative, here are some post-workout recovery meal ideas:

Robb Wolf, nutrition guru and author of the newly released The Paleo Diet Solution
The Paleo Diet and Athletics, from his FAQ: 
  • For high-intensity aerobic or anaerobic sports: 4-8oz lean protein plus 50-100g paleo-friendly carbohydrates (ex. sweet potatoes, squash, fruit) within 30min after activity.
  • For sprinters and power athletes: cyclical low-carb diet of mostly lean protein, liberal fat, and low-density carbohydrates spiked with increased paleo-friendly carb sources once or twice a week. 
Also check out his posts: 
Post Workout Nutrition: High or Low Carb?
Post WO Nutrition

OPT (Optimum Performance Training)
Check out an elite CrossFitter and coach's take on pre- and post-workout fueling, from his FAQ. 
  • Have an empty stomach but drink fluids pre-workout for high-intensity, metabolic workouts and eat as you like for heavier, strength-based workouts.  
  • Similarly, if the workout was strength-based, a balanced meal of lean protein, fat, and carbohydrate after will likely suffice, but a more metabolically taxing workout needs more refueling with higher carbohydrate and lean protein the sooner after the workout, the better. 
Mark's Daily Apple
In Post-Workout Fasting, Mark Sisson author of The Primal Blueprint advocates a high protein snack within 30-60min of exercise or occasional post-workout fasting to capitalize on a rise in human growth hormone after exercise.  He also has more specific advice for those seeking to Gain Weight and Build Muscle.  In that case, he suggests eating protein and fat post-workout and high-density carbohydrate after high energy expenditure. 

The Bottom-line

In my opinion, real food trumps man-made food any day, just for the sake of being more true to nature and true to what you body expects from food.  So if you eat higher-glycemic carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes) in conjunction with some lean protein (like chicken or fish), you're likely to get the recovery you seek.  To be sure, start keeping a training log and be specific about amounts of food, type and duration of exercise, and how soon you refueled so that you can see the patterns.  If you want to give chocolate milk a try, log how you feel afterward.  Does it help you recover better, the same, or worse than other foods?  Only YOU can answer: What makes YOU feel your best? 

In a pinch, chocolate milk is great for recovery, especially if you make it yourself using quality ingredients like dark chocolate and raw, grass-fed milk (organic at the very least, and it looks like the less fat, the better when it comes to post WO milk), and perhaps eat some starchier vegetables on the side to get a greater carbohydrate kick.  While the chocolate milk definitely "works," whether or not you want to accept it and its baggage into your diet is your own choice. 

I'm interested in hearing your stories with milk and other post-workout nutrition!  What works best for you?

Keep checking back for more updates on other beverages to see how they size up with paleo-style living!


  1. Great post! Really like your blog!

  2. pretty awesome analysis this! keep up the good work. will keep checking for more.

  3. Love your blog...informative yet interesting.

    So Paleo is typically anti dairy as far as I'm aware (if you're strict) and I find that I just feel better if I'm leaving it out (eating it leaves me bloated and uncomfortable).

    Paleo says lean protein + paleo friendly carbs...for evening workouts I definitely do that, but if I make it in the morning I have lately followed my workout with fruit of some kind and 3 hard boiled eggs (since both of these can be eaten on the drive to work). Are the post-workout eggs a mistake? Should I find something with less fat?