Chocolate Milk Recovery Study Debunked: Why Chocolate Milk Is A Lousy “Sports Recovery Drink”
In a daze of sweat, blood and exhaustion I stumble into the finisher’s chute, funneled towards the exit gate like a fish in a teeming net. My body throbs from the accumulated strain of 15 impossibly challenging miles (and 27 Hellish obstacles) but, at last, I’m done. I did it. My first Spartan “Beast” Race. Cross it off the list!
As I merge into the horde of haggard finishers looking unmistakably zombie-like, I’m overcome by two acute feelings:
FEELING #1: Elation.
FEELING #2: Complete exhaustion and the immediate need to replenish my abused body.
Looking around and racking my brain for solutions, I spot something that catches my attention — it’s a massive black poster showcasing a silhouetted super-athlete that reads: “Refuel With Chocolate Milk.” And below this flapping plastic billboard there’s a booth where two sharply-dressed volunteers are handing out — yep, you guessed it — cartons of chocolate milk.
I take two. I guzzle them in seconds. I moan in pleasure. I start hobbling away towards the parking lot…and then a thought hits me: “Is chocolate milk actually a smart way to refuel? Is flooding my system with milky, sugary creaminess doing me a service, or, like so many things, is it an overblown advertising sham?”
At the time, I didn’t know. And — honestly — I didn’t particularly care (I was more concerned with making it to the car without my legs collapsing in piles of lactic acid Jello). But, since then, I’ve investigated this question in-depth and landed on some insights that have changed the way I think about recovery.
The short answer? Chocolate milk sucks.
The still-short-but-less-decisive answer? It doesn’t have to.
In this post I’ll lay out my complete argument against chocolate milk as a “sports recovery beverage.” I’ll also share a simple yet powerful smoothie recipe I call Upgraded Chocolate Milk. But first, I want to dispel a few milk myths and equip you with a sane perspective on this most polemic of foods.
A Sane Perspective On Dairy
When it comes to controversial foods, dairy’s at the top of the list (next to wheat, meat and sugar). Do a quick Google search and you’ll find an illimitable slew of angry forum posts bashing, or, in rare cases defending the nutritional properties of milk and its creamy cousins. “It’s unnatural!” shouts one group. “No, it’s nature’s perfect food!” shouts the other. But, who’s right? And does dairy have a place in a healthy diet? These are the questions I’ll attempt to answer here.
I’ll start with a disappointing confession: I don’t know. And neither does anybody with total conviction. As Mark Sisson puts it: “our bodies definitely recognize dairy as a food, even foreign bovine dairy. But is it good nutrition? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone really does, in fact, which is why I place dairy firmly in Primal limbo.” But that’s not to say that we know nothing about the nutritive qualities of dairy, just that, well, it’s tricky. And personal. After all, as we’re coming to understand, diet is an individual phenomenon.
It’s also an ancestral one — which is particularly evident when it comes to dairy.
You see, 10,000 years ago milk wasn’t on the menu for anyone (except, of course, during infancy). It was, definitively, not an option, for people lacked the digestive enzyme (lactase) required to break down the “milk sugar” lactose.
But around 8,000 years ago, something happened. In select regions of the world we became, as Daniel Vitalis puts it, “mutants,” in the sense that we developed the hitherto unknown capacity to digest lactose as adults! (this is called “lactase persistence.”) In other words: the ability to digest dairy is a genetic trait that has evolved recently, and is carried by a portion of the global population.
And it’s not a very large portion. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that over two-thirds of people worldwide are lactose intolerant.
So, for most of us, dairy is a “no go.” But (and this is an important but) for some of us, particularly those of us with Northern European or West African heritage, dairy can be an advantageous calorie source that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, if consumed intelligently, I believe dairy can be one of the most balanced, wholesome, health giving parts of our diets — especially if you’re an athlete.
“But wait!” I hear you yelping. “Isn’t dairy mucus forming? Isn’t it highly acidic? Doesn’t it promote cancer growth?”
Well, while I don’t have time to address each of these questions in depth, here’s what I’ll say: there is a vast chasm of difference between conventional, pasteurized, low-fat supermarket dairy from factory-farmed cows and raw, organic dairy from pastured animals. There’s also a difference between a straight-up glass of milk and fermented dairy or butter (the latter of which contain significantly less of the dubious di-saccharide lactose and are therefore less intestinally jarring).
So, yeah. In summary, the dairy debate is not a clear-cut puzzle. And the answer to the question “is dairy healthy?” is, in my eyes, a less-than-satisfactory “it depends.” It depends on the source. It depends on your heritage and genetics. It also depends on your goals and aspirations. However, while I hesitate to take a definitive stance on general dairy consumption, I don’t hesitate to say this: drinking conventional chocolate milk is bad for your health, and the idea that chocolate milk is a “sports recovery drink” is an extravagant healthwashing claim that’s doing you more harm than good.
Why Chocolate Milk Is A Lousy sports Recovery Drink
If you’re an athlete, you’ve probably heard the virtues of chocolate milk touted high and low, so it may come as a surprise to hear me call it a “lousy” recovery drink. But let’s think about it. In the same way the Gator/Power/Whatever Ade is essentially artificially colored sugar-water, conventional chocolate milk is pasteurized dairy from factory-farmed cows combined with Hershey’s “chocolate” (sugar, artificial flavor, brown 4, more sugar). Sure, it’ll give you a quick shot of energy. And if you’re on the verge of death like I was after my Spartan Race, it’s certainly better than nothing. But to call it, as one articledoes, the “ultimate recovery drink?”
C’mon, people. We can do better.
I’ll give you a chance to download my Upgraded Chocolate Milk smoothie recipe at the end of this post, but first, I want to address (and dismantle) the preeminent study cited by chocolate milk evangelists old and young.
Debunking The Chocolate Milk Recovery Study: three Reasons The Widely Cited Endurance Trials Mean Nothing For You
In my research for this post, I stumbled upon dozens of articles eagerly citing a “groundbreaking” study that affirms — apparently — chocolate milk’s magical regenerative properties. Basically, the study goes like this:
Nine male cyclists bike to exhaustion. They rest for four hours, receiving one of three beverages: Gatorade, Endurox R4, or chocolate milk. Then they get back on their bikes and, again, bike to exhaustion. This cycle is repeated three times and it’s discovered that those who drink chocolate milk or Gatorade are able to bike significantly longer than the Endurox R4 drinkers.
Click here for the full study.
While most people (including the global media) unreservedly accept this study as “proof” of chocolate milk’s superiority, I find it to be, quite honestly, absurd. For a number of reasons (other than the fact that it was funded in-part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council). Here are my top three:
1. It’s focused on extreme endurance and immediate recovery.
Let me ask you something: when’s the last time you exercised to the point of total exhaustion multiple times in one day? For most people, including myself, the answer is a resounding NEVER! And yet, the dairy industry uses a study measuring the performance of extreme endurance athletes to market chocolate milk as a necessary recovery beverage for Average Joes engaged in average training.
This is misleading (and potentially destructive). As Alex Hutchinson writes, “top sports nutritionists believe that post-workout refueling is vital if you’re working out twice a day — but for the vast majority of us, our next meal will be perfectly adequate for refueling.” I’d add that the nutritional requirements needed to sustain immediate intense exercise are different from those needed to foster long-term performance and health. This brings me to my next point…
2. It’s focused entirely on performance.
In other words, the study measures short-term physical output with complete disregard for long-term health consequences. This, in my view, in one of the biggest pitfalls of modern sports science and the fatal flaw in most sports nutrition products. Sure, you can trick your body into performing decently today by ingesting stimulants, “Gu” and neon colored bottles of liquid who-knows-what, but if they cause your body to fall apart tomorrow, does that truly qualify as “performance enhancement?” I think not.
As Ben Greenfield puts it, “You can be a really good exerciser, and have a great body, and be super-duper healthy on the outside, and look really great in spandex and still, when you get old you want to be there to see your grandkids hit a home run, you want to be able to walk without pain…you don’t want long-term joint degradation from the wrong type of fuels. What I say is, if you can get equivalent levels of performance while putting the right fuels in your body and staying healthy, then, why not do it?”
3. It’s comparing crap to crap!
And finally, this study (and the vast majority of subsequent studies that have been conducted) compares chocolate milk against barf-worthy Franken fuels like Gatorade. One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard in favor of chocolate milk as a recovery beverage is: “it’s better and cheaper than popular sports drinks.” But, let’s not forget, popular sports drinks are TERRIBLE for you! (A glass of water with a cup of sugar stirred into it would be better and cheaper than popular sports drinks). So, call me crazy, but the fact the chocolate milk outperforms Gatorade* and another bottle of synthetic laboratory juice in a non-applicable extreme endurance trial doesn’t strike me as “proof” that it’s the best post-workout choice.
*Oh, wait. I forgot. Chocolate milk didn’t outperform Gatorade — they tied.
Reasons Not To Drink Chocolate Milk After Your Next Workout
While there’s no shortage of lists detailing the “top 5 reasons to drink chocolate milk after your next workout,” there aren’t many summarizing the reasons NOT to drink it. So I made one. Here are my top five reasons to stay away from chocolate milk after your next workout:
1. It’s liquid sugar.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: chocolate milk contains a teeth-rotting amount of sugar — roughly 12 teaspoons (52 g) per 500ml carton. While this certainly makes it taste heavenly, let’s be real: do you really need to guzzle a QUARTER CUP of refined sugar after each workout? Will that actually promote superior health and athletic performance? Will that help you become, as the Got Chocolate Milk? campaign motto goes, “Built With Chocolate Milk?” I’ll let you answer those questions for yourself.
2. Pasteurized milk is a denatured digestive irritant.
If you think all milk is created equal, think again. While raw, full-fat milk from grass-fed animals can be a nutrient-dense whole food for those who can tolerate it, pasteurized and/or homogenized milk is a processed pseudo-food that has been fundamentally altered from its natural state and is, in general, far more digestively problematic (click here for a video explanation of how these procedures work).
As Chris Kresser writes: “In a sign on nature’s wisdom, raw milk contains lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. Pasteurization, however, kills lactase. So if you don’t produce your own lactase, you’ll have a hard time digesting pasteurized milk. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tolerate raw milk. I can’t tolerate pasteurized dairy myself, but I don’t seem to have any problems with raw dairy.”
3. It’s weight loss sabotage.
While caloric intake certainly isn’t the lone determinant of weight loss success (or failure), it does matter. And, by chugging a bottle of post-workout chocolate milk you are, in a sense, annulling your efforts in one fell gulp. As Mark Kennedy writes, “for those of us looking to lose weight drinking chocolate milk after a workout is pure sabotage.” And it’s not just the calories you need to be worried about, it’s the sugar, which creates an insulin response, which triggers fat storage.
4. Artificial ingredients.
“Low fat milk, corn sweeteners, cocoa, cocoa processed with alkali, starch, dextrose, salt, caramel color, carrageenan, vanillin (artificial flavor), artificial flavor, vitamin A palmitate and vitamin D3 added.”
That’s a typical ingredient list for a bottle of chocolate milk. It’s no wonder this corn syrup slurry has been banned in several school cafeterias across the country!
5. It takes the place of other foods.
And lastly, if you’re drinking chocolate milk you’re NOT consuming other, better things. I know this sounds foolishly obvious, but I think it needs to be said. You can only ingest so much in a day, and if you’re an athlete looking to maximize your performance, each food choice should be conscious and deliberate. As Meghan Telpner puts it: “why sip something that is not health promoting when there’s so much goodness out there?”
Ok, But What Should I Drink? (Your Free Download)
After writing the inaugural draft of this post I realized that, after systematically condemning chocolate milk and hinting at other solutions, you’re probably wondering: “If chocolate milk’s such a bad choice, then what SHOULD I drink?”
Here’s my answer: unless you’re engaged in serious, hardcore training, nothing. Your next meal should be plenty. However…if you are performing strenuous daily workouts and are looking for a nutritional aid to help repair your beat-up muscles, I’ve designed a smoothie recipe I’m calling “Upgraded Chocolate Milk,” and I’d like to give it to you for free.
Thanks so much for reading,