Diet Detective Investigation: Muscle Recovery: Can Chocolate Milk Do the Trick?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

In a 2006 study that was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, researchers compared Gatorade, chocolate milk, and a sports drink (with a carb and protein combination matching that of chocolate milk). Nine male cyclists biked until they were exhausted, rested, and then biked again. The researchers had the cyclists repeat the cycle, but this time they drank one of the three drinks during their rest period. The cyclists who drank the chocolate milk were then able to bike significantly longer than those who drank the sports drink, and for about the same time as those who drank the Gatorade.

The American College of Sports Medicine presented another chocolate milk study just last year at its annual meeting in Seattle. That study, conducted at James Madison University, compared chocolate milk to a high-carbohydrate recovery beverage with the same number of calories. In this study, 13 male college soccer players trained for one week, then drank either low-fat chocolate milk or the high-carbohydrate recovery beverage after intense training for the next four days. They took a two-week break, then repeated the cycle, and the researchers compared the degree of muscle recovery between the two groups.

According to this study, “All of the athletes increased their daily training times during the intensified training, regardless of post-exercise beverage, yet after two and four days of intensified training, chocolate milk drinkers had significantly lower levels of creatine kinase — an indicator of muscle damage — compared to when they drank the carbohydrate beverage. There were no differences between the two beverages in effects on soccer-specific performance tests, subjective ratings of muscle soreness, mental and physical fatigue and other measures of muscle strength.”

And yet another study, recently released at the American College of Sports Medicine’s 57th annual meeting in Baltimore, showed that chocolate milk might be a “worthwhile post-exercise recovery beverage.”

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.

There are several important issues to understand about muscle recovery: “First and foremost, active individuals must ensure they are meeting their total energy intake needs in order to promote muscle recovery. Next, they need to appropriately time consumption of adequate amounts of fluids and electrolytes, carbohydrate for replenishing glycogen storage, and high-quality protein for repairing and rebuilding muscle protein,” says Jackie Maurer Abbot, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. She suggests drinking water for fluids, some Gatorade for the electrolytes such as potassium and sodium (find out how much you need) and looking for carbohydrates that are high on the glycemic index such as a baked potato or brown rice, because they help move glucose into the cells. You also need protein, but not all protein sources are good choices. Choose good quality lean proteins (egg whites, fish, lean meats with no visible fat, white meat chicken and turkey without skin).

Research from the University of Texas that was published in Medical Science and Sports Exercise and the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism has demonstrated that carbohydrates alone are not enough. Amino acids are also critical for muscle recovery. Amino acids serve as the building blocks our muscles use to repair the damage that occurs with exercise as well as to support muscle growth (aka muscle hypertrophy). In fact, consuming as little as 6 grams of essential amino acids (from animal proteins and soy protein, which contain all nine of the essential amino acids) can aid the recovery process, says Abbot. And one specific amino acid, leucine, has been identified by researchers as potentially mediating greater maintenance of muscle mass. Leucine plays a key role in building new muscle protein, and 1 cup of chocolate milk has 778 milligrams of leucine.

The problem is that many people, including athletes, don’t need the extra calories. In fact, many are trying to reduce body fat, not increase it. According to Clark, an athlete — or anyone for that matter — can simply have a meal with whole foods that includes lean protein and whole-grain carbohydrates. “There is no rush. It’s about muscle recovery; you have time. The idea is to get ready for the next event.” Also, when you come to think about it, chocolate milk requires refrigeration — which means it is not so convenient after all.

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.

The bottom line: The unique combination of carbohydrates and protein, and the fact that fat-free chocolate milk is also a liquid (as opposed to something like yogurt), make it a contender as a muscle-recovery drink. However, a real meal containing protein and whole-grain carbs would be better. And from a weight-loss perspective, it’s not a real option. Skip the fat-free chocolate milk and have a plain Greek yogurt (80 calories; 0 g fat; 6 g carbs; 15 g protein for more than 5.3 ounces) with a cut-up banana (1 medium = 105 calories; 0.39 g fat; 27 g carbs; 3 g fiber; 1.29 g protein). Read more about yogurt and bananas.

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