Chocolate Milk as Recovery?
After a super-tough ride on the bike, what’s your best nutrition option for recovery? In the world of sports nutrition, there’s a lot of buzz about low-fat chocolate milk. Since I generally like simple, whole-food nutrition over chemicals and processed foods, the thought of it appeals to me (although many cheap chocolate syrups are made with chemicals – more on this below). While there are hundreds of sports nutrition foods and drinks available on the shelves, is it possible that a favorite childhood drink holds the secrets to muscle recovery, stronger rides, and lean body mass retention?
In 2009, sports scientists at Indiana University had cyclists ride until their muscles were depleted of energy. Then, they rested, drank a recovery drink, rested some more and biked again until exhaustion. As recovery nutrition, the cyclists were given one of three isocaloric beverages during the first 30 minutes of the rest period. They received Gatorade, Endurox R4 or low-fat chocolate milk. The Gatorade cyclists and Chocolate Milk cyclists were able to bike approximately 50% longer than the Endurox cyclists. For comparison, here’s the nutrition break-down for each of these drinks:
Gatorade (per 100 calories): 100 calories, 32 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams protein, 200 milligrams sodium, 50 milligrams potassium
Chocolate Milk (per 100 calorie – see full label on right): 100 calories, 16.6 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 97 milligrams sodium, 270 milligrams potassium, 185 milligrams calcium, 20 milligrams magnesium
Endurox (per 100 calories): 100 calories, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 82 milligrams sodium, 50 milligrams potassium, 36 mg milligrams calcium, 89 milligrams magnesium
Then, earlier this year, the University of Texas conducted a series of studies to test the affects of different drinks used in recovery on the performance of cyclists over a one-month period. The drinks studied included low-fat chocolate milk, a carbohydrate solution sports drink similar to Gatorade, and a calorie-free drink similar to Vitamin Water.
The results? The Chocolate Milk cyclists showed improved oxygen uptake at twice the rate as those who drank the other beverages. Furthermore, they added more lean muscle mass and shaved off more fat than those who consumed the carbohydrate drink.
All this sounds pretty good, right?
It makes sense to me that the Chocolate Milk is winning in research. In recovery, you want carbohydrates, protein, and fluid. Both the milk and chocolate syrup provide carbohydrates. The chocolate syrup carbs are quick-acting, which gives glycogen stores efficient replenishment. The milk carbs, from lactose, are slower, providing an ongoing energy source to discourage muscle wasting. Then, milk provides whey and casein, which are quick-acting and slow-acting proteins, respectively. This provides protein for muscle cell rebuilding and retention over a long period of time. Additionally, milk provides other nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Some analysts have also hypothesized that the caffeine in chocolate syrup may stimulate tired muscles, but at only 5 milligrams of caffeine per serving in most commercial syrups, I’m not convinced of any benefit (for context, most cups of moderately-strong coffee contain 80-120 milligrams).
The carbohydrate only drinks, like Gatorade generally offer only quick-acting carbs, and no protein. The carbohydrate and protein combo drinks, like Endurox R4, offer quick-acting and moderate-speed carbs, but only quick-acting whey protein. They use ingredients that have been refined and broken down rather than whole-food based ingredients.
First, it’s no secret that these studies were partially funded by the milk industry. What does this mean to me? Simply that there is a conflict of interest. However, it is not uncommon for food industries to provide funds for research that they think will benefit them – simply put, research costs money and there aren’t many funding sources from the government or other entities available. While I still think the results are likely trustworthy, they are not complete. Chocolate milk was not compared to drinks that are competitors with it, such as soy milk. Also, other carbohydrate sources such as fresh fruits (as in a smoothie) or honey were not used. Alternative energy sources, such as medium chain triglycerides from organic coconut oil have not been compared. So, while chocolate milk has fared well, we don’t know if it is truly the best option available.
Also, the studies were small in scale. They were performed on one type of athlete, cyclists, with only 9 and 32 participants in each.
Considering the study conclusions in support of chocolate milk, I think we can take their data and do better.
2. Syrups & Honey – Avoid cheap, commercial chocolate syrups that contain high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings – these are not exactly what you want to feed your muscles. If you’re willing to make your own syrup with cocoa and sugar, it’s a big step up from the squeeze bottles at the store – you’ll get pure ingredients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Or better yet, choose raw honey or a homemade cocoa/honey syrup as a great option to get even more antioxidants and natural enzymes.
3. Yogurt – If you want to boost the absorption of antioxidants, choose plain organic yogurt with honey over organic milk – the healthy bacteria will promote increased antioxidant absorption and better digestion just in time for all the free radicals that abound after exercise.
4. Dairy Alternatives – If you’re not a fan of milk, there are alternatives. Again, soy milk was not studied in these instances and may offer a comparable alternative. Or, a smoothie with whey protein powder (lactose free and casein free), fruit, and coconut oil. Or, a peanut butter and honey sandwich or Clif Bar. The best recovery is one gives you the nutrients you need and that you’ll eat consistently despite any fatigue.
If you like milk, these preliminary studies offer some evidence that milk plus simple carbohydrates work well to improve performance and stamina while promoting more lean muscle and less fat storage. To improve on chocolate milk, try honey milk or honey yogurt. If you don’t want to include dairy products in your recovery plan, make sure to consume an alternative snack with carbohydrates, protein, and fluids. Instead of waiting until you’re tired after a hard ride, prepare your recovery snack ahead of time so that you can consume it within 30 minutes of exhausting your muscles.