Last week I noticed the guy swimming laps in the lane next to me had a bottle of chocolate milk sitting on the edge of the pool. I always have my water bottle so that he had a beverage wasn’t what struck me. It was that it was chocolate milk. I vaguely remembered a commercial about chocolate milk being a good recovery drink for athletes. I looked at the guy a little more closely. He was pretty much what you’d expect of a middle-aged man in the US, round in the middle. What the press calls a “dad-bod.” I wouldn’t have qualified him as an athlete. But good on him for swimming.
I continued my swim and then went on my way, completely forgetting about it. Then over the weekend someone posted the commercial for chocolate milk as a recovery drink in one of the healthy eating groups I’m in. Apparently, I’m being told by the universe that I need to write about this.
I KNOW that milk, chocolate or otherwise is not a health food. The casein protein in it has been linked very strongly to cancer promotion and growth. It increases inflammation in the body and most adults can’t digest it well, which leads to GI distress. So, where did this idea that it’s good for athletes come from?
Let’s take a look at how the studies were done.
WebMD references an article from 2010. The study was on eight healthy male runners. After a 45-minute run they either drank 16 ounces of fat-free chocolate milk or a carbohydrate only sports drink.
Let’s ignore the ridiculously small sample size of only men and just focus on the comparison. Basically, what they are saying is that carbohydrates PLUS protein is better for muscle recovery than just carbohydrates. That isn’t news.
The registered dietitian they quoted said that chocolate milk is “inexpensive nutritional alternative to engineered sports beverages. And, “(T)here's no reason not to reach for fat-free chocolate milk after your next workout.”
I agree that it is an alternative and perhaps a less horrible option (in the short-term at least) than an engineered beverage. But I disagree completely on her assertion that there is no reason not to drink it. There are MANY reasons to not drink milk and why take in the empty sugar calories from chocolate flavoring when you could just have some fruit?
Another2012 study looked at the same thing (chocolate milk compared to sports drinks) and concluded that chocolate milk is “optimal for exercise recovery.”
“Optimal” suggested they studied every option you could possibly ingest after exercising and chocolate milk won out. You can’t play a single game and declare a world champion – except in sloppy science.
Naturally the press and the dairy industry were more than happy to run with that story like wildfire. And to be fair, if your ONLY goal is inexpensive, immediate muscle recovery, then chocolate milk is no big deal. If your goals include long term health and longevity – it is obviously not the best option.
The human body doesn’t need anything fancy just because it was physically active. I’m not talking about extreme athletes. They are in a different class and need to be more aware of their nutritional intake (but even they don’t need chocolate milk). For most of us, and I include Russ and myself in this camp, getting great nutrition on a daily basis is going to allow our muscles to recover just fine, no pre- or post-workout drink needed.
Instead of reaching for sugary chocolate milk or sports beverage, keep yourself hydrated with water before, during and after your workout. Replenish your body’s glycogen, nutrients and minerals by eating whole food carbs which come with the perfect balance of protein. Toss on some nuts or seeds if you want a little extra protein.
If you REALLY want chocolate milk, choose a plant milk instead of dairy. I have found that soy milk has the creaminess you’d expect. But treat it like a dessert. Not a health drink. We workout five days a week with extra bike rides or swims thrown in for good measure. If you watch our daily Facebook lives you know we eat steel cut oats with fruit and seeds every day unless we are fasting (yes we workout on fasting days). Our muscles recover nicely and are ready to go to the gym again the next morning.
Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.