If you watch TV, you have surely seen the “Recharge with Milk” commercial ad campaign, started by the Dairy Farmers of Canada.  If you are unsure what I am talking about, see the clip below.  The ads are built around studies that show chocolate milk provides the body with the ideal components to “rehydrate,” “refuel,” and “recharge” after exercise.  In fact, post-exercise chocolate milk has become rather popular in the past few years, on the backs of celebrity endorsers, such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.  In clinic, I see numerous athletes who either are or were on the chocolate milk bandwagon.  But the question that comes in to play is whether or not it is truly the best post-exercise option for athletes?


Rationale for Post-Exercise Chocolate Milk

On paper, chocolate milk does seem like the ideal after workout beverage.  Sports nutritionists almost universally agree that proper replenishing after exercise greatly reduces recovery time, and is vitally important for the following reasons:

  1. Rehydration: water lost through sweating to cool the body during activity must be replaced.
  2. Replacing Calories: the body burns glucose, stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen, for energy, and these stores must be filled up to permit future activity.
  3. Replenishing Electrolytes: electrolytes, or salts, are leeched from the body in sweat and must be replaced in order for the body to maintain biochemical homeostasis.
  4. Repairing Micro-Damage: activity causes small tears in the muscle, so post-exercise proteins help heal the damage, which has been shown to speed recovery time.

Chocolate milk appears to do these things.  The main study cited in commercials and advertising materials, called “Chocolate Milk as a Post-Exercise Recovery Aid” found that chocolate milk was more beneficial to recovery than either a fluid replenishing beverage or a carbohydrate replenishing beverage.  The study methodology was sound, so the result is seemingly promising.  Unfortunately, the study falls apart at the seams:

  1. The sample size is only 9 people!
  2. It compares fluid and carbohydrate replenishing beverages as different entities, when all commercially available sports drinks contain both.
  3. The study was funded by the Dairy and Nutrition Council, making the results biased from the start.  If you have ever worked on a privately funded study, you will be familiar with how negative findings mysteriously disappear, and that only positive findings are ever reported.

So basically, the dairy council has spent millions of dollars on advertising, based on a study of tiny sample size, comparing to beverages that no one uses, and is funded by the most biased group possible, themselves!  Two other studies showing that chocolate milk improves endurance and helps build muscle have similar downfalls.

 Chocolate Milk vs. Sports Drinks

Both chocolate milk and recovery specific sports drinks contain the necessary components to promote muscle recovery and replenish lost water, energy (sugar), and electrolytes.  The real difference between the two is the types of sugar they contain, and the differences in fat content.  When making a personalized hydration strategy for an athlete, my ultimate goal is to feed the body exactly what it needs, taking away the bodily burden of manufacturing lacking components, and dealing with unnecessary (excess) components.  By doing so, the body can focus all of its resources on optimal recovery.

It is for this reason that I use recovery specific sports beverages with athletes, and not chocolate milk, and likely why I tend to see better results as well.  It is my belief that sports drinks are superior for the following two reasons:

  1. The main sugar in milk is lactose, which is digested with difficulty in many adults, and chocolate milk is further sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which is highly undesirable for many reasons beyond the scope of this article.  A good sports drink contains easily digestible sucrose, glucose, and maltodextrins, but not fructose.
  2. Milk contains saturated fats, which are totally unnecessary post-exercise, and are not desirable in general in high concentrations.  Sports drinks contain no fat.

Research shows that pure water alone is not sufficient for athletic recovery.  Whether or not chocolate milk is the best recovery source is not clear, since the available evidence is poor, not to mention, provided by the dairy industry itself.  There is ample evidence to support the use of sports specific recovery beverages, and until shown otherwise, this is the strategy I will continue to use.

Further, there is ever increasing evidence that dairy should be avoided in general, making post-exercise dairy consumption questionable at best.  In the next article, will be a discussion of why dairy may not be part of a healthy diet.