Blasphemous Thoughts on Sports Nutrition

Chocolate Milk is Crap

Aimee GalloYes – I think chocolate milk is crap. The recovery food hailed by the world as the perfect post-workout replenishment falls far short of it in my book. Before I fully step upon my soap box, let me explain why chocolate milk rose to fame.

The key nutrition components to a complete recovery can be summed up in two categories: 1) food and 2) hydration. Here’s why the Dairy Council and many coaches and sports nutritionists are pushing milk at the finish line:

  • Chocolate milk contains the ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein. The 1:3 – 1:4 ratio that not only replenishes glycogen, but also provides protein for tissue repair and transport of the carbohydrates more effectively into the cell walls.
  • Chocolate milk is liquid – therefore it contributes to rehydrating the body.
  • Chocolate milk is tasty – I mean, really! Who on earth doesn’t like chocolate milk?!?!
  • Chocolate milk is cheap, convenient and accessible. You can find it anywhere – even along a highway in rural Kansas at a truck stop or gas station.

The above facts are exactly why you are thinking chocolate milk sounds good right about now! However, I take the viewpoint that the human body is a miraculous vessel. When you think about all it does for you and all it puts up with, it’s not hard to understand on some level that it is an incredible machine – not unlike a Ferrari, Tesla or Lamborghini. Chocolate milk is like putting the cheapest diesel fuel you can find into your half million dollar sports car. Here’s why:

  • Chocolate milk is a dairy food – and dairy foods come with a host of potential problems. They are highly allergenic (an estimated 60-75% of the adult human population exhibits signs of dairy intolerance) and often laced with excessive hormones from the conditions in which cattle are raised. Excess estrogen is already of great concern in many individuals and is linked to hormone imbalances and possibly cancer in humans. Dairy only exacerbates that. (My former teacher Dr. Mark Hyman has a compelling piece on dairy and the Food Guide Pyramid here if you want more info.)
  • Chocolate milk’s carbohydrate source comes exclusively from lactose (potential allergen) and high fructose corn syrup or sugar. HFCS is strongly suspect as being a contributor to diabetes and non-alcohol related fatty liver due to how it is digested in the body. Corn syrup and table sugar are, of course, the most nutritionally devoid form of carbohydrate on the market. Regardless of where any nutritionist or dietitian is on our highly political food spectrum, we all agree that sugar and corn syrup are not ideal sources of carbohydrate. So my question to you is, are they the sources you want to be pumping into your cells to repair them after a hard workout? Do you want the construct of your muscle tissue to come from vitamin-devoid sweeteners?

This stance alone has some of you wanting to squeeze the remainder of your milk carton in my face. I get it. I’m not taking a popular stance here! If milk judgment were my only offense, you might forgive me. But I have more blasphemy for you.

Carb loading

Our mainstay and go-to, the absolute foundation of endurance sports nutrition lies in carb loading. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of pancake feeds, pasta feeds, thai food feasts, and other meals I’ve had after long runs in the last decade. This was a myth I bought hook, line, and sinker. It made sense. It was widely backed by research. The entire sports nutrition community did it and backed it. And pancakes and pasta sound AWESOME after two to three hours on the road. Another easy sell! I began to question this logic though when it became more and more challenging to maintain my weight. I struggled to prevent weight gain when my training was at its highest – ten hours a week or more! At 5’2″ my stomach doesn’t hold enough food to make up for the calories I was losing, yet I was still challenged. Working with other endurance athletes – I saw the same struggles in them. It wasn’t until I understood the hormonal impact of carbohydrates in relation to fat burning and left the caloric model completely, that I was able to lose the seven pounds I gained for my last races in 2010 AND be able to help other runners and triathletes lose the spare tire that refused to go away. Looking around we all know that some people stay slender and others have to fight for it. The answer, however, isn’t in hours logged and miles run so much as it is in the food choices we make on an hour-to-hour basis. I, and other endurance athletes like myself, find better results in carbohydrate moderation rather than carbohydrate loading. I discovered that there was no need to carb-up or recover to the extent that I had been taught. Many runners will only lean out when they start moderating the quantity and timing of their carbohydrate intake. If you are burning loads of calories and still struggling with weight you’ll want to explore this possibility immediately.

My final blasphemy for the day is a hybrid of the above two. The pre-race spaghetti feed. For races less than two hours long, it is unlikely you will need to consume extra carbohydrates than you typically do unless you are on a carbohydrate restricted diet. Once our glycogen levels are full, any excess carbohydrate is likely to be converted to fat. For many events such a feed is simply unnecessary. Events lasting longer than two hours, are best fueled with moderate carbohydrate consumption the day before and with amino acid and carbohydrate replenishment during the event. Another consideration with the pre-race pasta meal again lies in food intolerances and digestive upset. Gluten intolerance is very common in my practice and increasingly common in the general population. Thus the pasta feed can lead to digestive upset during the race, increased inflammation and decreased recovery, poor moods, decreased alertness and motor skills (I kid you not), and overall lowered performance. Many clients have had a significant shift in performance simply by shifting the pre-race meal to sushi, brown rice pasta with loads of vegetables, or including a baked yam or potato with dinner the night before. Give it a try before your next race and see if you feel a difference! If you already have a gluten-free pre-race meal, I’d love to know what it is so I can share with my gluten-free athletes!

It is not my intention to create enemies with this post – only to open up the possibility for alternatives if what you are currently accepting as appropriate is, in fact, not working for you. Each person is unique and therefore requires a unique formula to achieve success on and off the trail. For more insights into race recovery (including my favorite recipes), fat loss for endurance runners, and using real foods to fuel you active lifestyle, click here to learn about post-workout nutrition and gain access to my favorite post-workout recipes!

Aimee Gallo

31 Comments
Kate Mayeski

May 21, 2013 at 9:57 am

Switch to chocolate almond milk and call it a day 🙂

Lily

May 21, 2013 at 10:08 am

THANK YOU!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!! I really needed to read this! I ran my 1st Full marathon last December…yay for me…well, at least for accomplishing it! I was very disturbed my my race pictures as to how “thick” I looked. All I have taken from this experience was the way I looked. I thought that the training alone would bring this 5’1 “decent” frame to a “lean running machine”! WRONG. I am planning on doing another one this winter. I plan to use your “insight” to change things up!!! Please get up on that soap box ANY time you want to!!!

Alice

May 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

You lost me at “I think chocolate milk is crap”.

Jamie

May 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

Lactose is milk sugar. It is not a potential allergen. The inability to break down lactose is lactose intolerance, so although it causes unwelcome side effects and affects a great many people, it it not a food allergen and does not pose a risk as in someone with a food allergy. Food allergens are proteins so in the case of milk, whey and casein protein fractions. In the case of food allergy, all forms of milk must be avoided whereas in lactose intolerance, some amounts are indeed tolerated. Thanks!!

Ryan

May 21, 2013 at 10:32 am

Good read. I pretty much agree with you and recently subscribed to the carb restricted diet. And, the carbs I do eat are a lot better quality. I go 2 to 3 days a week virtually carb free and smart carbs the other days. Basically enough carbs to get me through 3 to 4 hours of intense workouts on high volume days but allow me to dip into fat burning to train my body to burn more fat and not as much carbs when racing and training. Racing triathlons and half ironman races kept me at a decent weight, but going carb restricted has gotten me to a better race weight without sacrificing my health. It’s also training my body to tap into fat reserves more efficiently so I don’t need to ingest as much nutrition during races as well.

That being said, I’m a sucker at the finish line to chug two fat free skim chocolate milks after a couple of hours of racing.

Simone

May 21, 2013 at 10:45 am

Make your own with organic milk and Ovaltine. Female athletes also need more calcium and milk is a great additional source for those who want to avoid potential kidney stones from Ca supplements, or bone loss.

TrailMonkey

May 21, 2013 at 10:58 am

@Simone – There are better sources of of more bioavailable calcium such as dark leafy greens, nuts, and small fish like sardines. The milk=calcium is hype and not easily absorbed.

Aimee Gallo

May 21, 2013 at 11:32 am

Jamie – THANK YOU for making this clear and specific. You are correct – milk rarely is a true allergy, but rather is a common intolerance; be it from lactose, casein, whey, or other milk proteins. The term allergy and intolerance are (incorrectly) used interchangeably, and I flubbed big time in not catching that important specification before it went to publication! I appreciate your comment and clarification for the readers! The amount of tolerance for dairy varies widely; some people can handle a glass of milk every few days, some people notice symptoms with just a smidgen of sour cream. And unlike a true allergy, which will lead to a histamine response such as hives or anaphylaxis, the symptoms of dairy intolerance can be subtle and easy to miss.

Aimee Gallo

May 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

Lily – AWESOME. I’m so glad this shed some light for you! As I said – what is written here may not be true for everyone, but I have seen it often enough to know it is true enough that people need to know about it! Good luck on your next race!

Heather Dube

May 21, 2013 at 11:46 am

A higher level of nutrition as a piece of optimized metabolic performance for athletes, also for better healing and recovery, is hugely overlooked yet. Way to hit on a critical topic, Aimee!! If you can get better results yet of your body through nutrition for healing, recovery & performance, why in the world wouldn’t you want to do that? Most athletes are still putting their 80 in their fitness & their 20 in their nutrition; when they switch it up, yooowza’s on up leveling results. Pouring ANY dairy down the drain, great first step. We wrote about the downsides of dairy for Experience Life magazine & it got a lot of reaction. Keep up the fantastic work. You’re an inspiration. XO

Ken

May 21, 2013 at 11:59 am

This article speaks the truth. The old-school mentality is that athletes need lots of milk and heavy carbs leading up to competition. In reality, it’s really just weighing a lot of young athletes down–and, could in fact be preventing them from reaching their true potential. It’s time that parents and coaches be enlightened on this subject to help their kids and athletes succeed.

Bailey

May 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Aimee, what would be a better option than chocolate milk for post-race recovery – something that is also semi-convenient and has the 1:3 – 1:4 carbs to protein ratio, but doesn’t get all its carbs from HFCS or sugar?

Dianna on Maui

May 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Mahalo, Aimee, for having the courage to stand up and say what many are afraid to! Triathlon and marathon courses are lined with port-potties not just for convenient elimination, but because of all the athletes who suffer from digestive upset (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting) during their race. Because we’ve been sold the line that we NEED all of these gels, sports drinks, pasta, bagels, chocolate milk, etc. in order to fuel our bodies pre, during, and post. Guess what, folks? You don’t.

More and more athletes (including me!) are discovering that you get better overall performance in endurance sports by eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods, drinking WATER, and training your body to become more fat-adapted, thereby requiring less calories and LITTLE carbs. It’s about cutting out the processed foods, preservatives and sweeteners.

And if you think participating in endurance sports is going to make you thin, think again. Races are packed with people who have trained as hard (if not harder) than most and still cannot lose weight. Why? Because it’s not about calories in-calories out. It’s about WHAT YOU EAT.

I’m just disappointed that pro athletes such as Mirinda Carfrae are shilling for chocolate milk. I realize that triathlon doesn’t pay and they need the sponsorship $$, but I’d really rather see her as a sponsor for the Vegetable Growers of America in an “Eat More Kale” campaign. Ok, not a real organization, but you get my point. Sadly, organic farming doesn’t have the multi-million dollar advertising campaign funds.

Thank you again for bucking the trend and shedding some light on an important issue.

Simone

May 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Three more things:
1. Why would an athlete want to lose weight? They should be aiming to maintain their weight when fueling and refueling. The goal should be performance, and refueling to promote a strong recovered body. There are people (especially young women) that get caught up in losing weight as a goal, in the long run their performance (and health) suffers.

2. Carb-loading seems to be misunderstood. It is not supposed to be stuffing yourself with carbs the night before a race. Rightly done, it is only used events longer than your body can store carbs for, such as a marathon (not 5k’s and 10k’s). It is supposed to be about changing the ratio of carbs in your diet, very low early in the week, to very high the day before your endurance race. The total number of calories you take in should not significantly change, just the proportion of carbs/protein/fat.The purpose is to promote more carbs being held in the muscles. Thus carb-loading is a week long process.

3. Yes, HFCS is to be avoided, but you need to watch out for it everywhere, not just flavored milk.

Amanda

May 22, 2013 at 1:01 am

Cheers to the comments by Heather Dube and Trailmonkey. Many of us grew up watching the dairy industry commercials that said, “Milk: It does a body good.” Remember the one that started with a little girl and she kept changing and growing until by the end of the commercial, she was a tall, leggy model with long blonde hair? Then of course, everyone is familiar with the “Got Milk?” campaign, which has utilized beautiful female celebrities to send the message that if YOU drink milk, you could look the way they look. Advertising! There are plenty of other, better ways to get calcium. As was previously mentioned, there are too many hormones in regular milk these days. Plus, some dairy cows get mastitis, or infection in their udders, leaving them with puss being excreted from their teets along with the milk. It’s mass production, so do you think that a cow with an udder infection is going to be taken off the milking line to recover? It’s doubtful. Instead, there are regulations in place for the amount of puss that is allowed in the milk from a cow. The best rule of thumb for me is this: If I think about from where my nutrition ORIGINALLY comes, do I still want to eat it/drink it? Milk doesn’t just come from the grocery store. It’s the same way when you buy beef, poultry, pork, seafood, and/or game. You’re really buying dead cow, chicken/turkey, pig, shrimp/fish/crab, and/or deer, etc.

Greg

May 22, 2013 at 4:36 am

Your second paragraph says it all – The “Dairy Council” sponsored a study that says that chocolate milk is the “perfect” recovery fuel. Do you think they’d sponsor a study or publish a study that says otherwise? I don’t believe a study until I can find out where the funding of that study comes from. It’s all about the money.

Helena

May 22, 2013 at 7:34 am

Thought-provoking, for sure — which is always appreciated! — but the “potential allergen” issue is less of a concern for those of us who are old enough to know what our bodies can and cannot tolerate. Substitute an organic choc milk (from non-hormone-treated cows) made with sugar (not corn syrup), and I don’t think it’s so bad.

Lucyland

May 22, 2013 at 8:07 am

I’m looking forward to more Gluten/Wheat Free pre-race advice! Chocolate Silk is a good alternative–it’s as equally tasty and fulfills my need for daily soy.

Amanda - TooTallFritz

May 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

Wow. Finally, someone isn’t afraid to speak the truth. The choc milk refuel campaign is a joke. A total joke. If it wasn’t supported by so many high profile people and it wasn’t so easy for people to get post run, it would have flopped.

And don’t get me started on carb loading. I always tell people who feel the need to stuff themselves pre-race, “what goes in must come out!!”. Normal people need a normal amount of food, in normal proportions pre-race. I certainly can’t speak for what an ultra runner or elite athlete would need b/c that’s not me but most of us fall into that “normal” category.

Thanks for putting this out there. I shared it to the FB page for my blog.

Terri Schneider

May 22, 2013 at 11:42 am

Amen Aimee!
I was at a talk a while back with an elite triathlete and got a lot of nasty stares when I tried to refute her promotion of Chocolate Milk as a recovery drink—the audience wanted to believe it was true and weren’t happy I was dissing her recommendation. Thanks for setting the record straight here. Creating your own recovery drink without simple sugar is an excellent choice and for a quick fix there are a lot of excellent recovery products on the market that work incredibly well while keeping the simple sugars at bay and sans dairy. In short, its easy to stay away from Chocolate milk, so why drink it!
Terri Schneider

Holly

May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I also, like Bailey above, would like to know what is a better option and what you suggest as a post-run recovery drink and snack. My typical is an egg sandwich (fried egg, slice of ham, half slice of cheese, bread (gluten free bread as I have celiac)) and chocolate milk.

As far as my gluten-free pre-race meal, rice pasta. I typically buy Thai Kitchen rice noodles, and have either spagetti or alfredo, or sometimes just some butter and seasoning on the noodles. I eat a lot of vegetables and rice because of the celiac.

Laura

May 23, 2013 at 7:24 am

CHOCOLATE-FLAVORED MUCUS.
That’s what chocolate milk is. Chocolate-flavored mucus.

Well, to be fair, it’s actually sooooooooooo much more than that:
Antibiotic & Hormone ridden, GMO & Refined White Sugar laden, not to mention Pasteurized (to kill all those pesky enzymes, right?), and that’s only the beginning of the Bad News.

THANK YOU, AIMEE, for busting the chops of those milk-mustached deceivers! YOU ROCK!

Trish

May 23, 2013 at 7:51 am

Is organic milk OK, or is all milk tainted with all those bad things mentioned (antibiotics, steroids, pus, etc.)? Even though it costs more, would organic milk be a much better choice? Having grown up with milk as a staple, it has been difficult to cut it out completely. My grandfather and other relatives were farmers. Changing my way of thinking about meat and dairy has been a long process.
Also, I am discovering that at my age (going on 50), that the bad carbs have made it impossible to lose any weight. Sometimes, it seems as though I must cut out all carbs to lose any weight at all anymore. Therefore, I agree with your theory about carbs.

Aimee Gallo

May 23, 2013 at 9:20 am

Bailey, fruit smoothies are a great post recovery drink. The carbs come from anti-inflammatory immune boosting fruits, and protein can be added from a rice/pea/hemp protein (or an egg protein if you tolerate eggs). When I am traveling for a race I will often bring a protein powder for convenience OR organic jerky for the finish line. Some people don’t like protein powders because of taste or the fact they are pretty processed. Others have no issues with it. If it is a local race I will have half a turkey sandwich with GF bread or a banana and jerky and then head home or out for a full meal ASAP. Check out the link I have in the post for more ideas and some recipes, or you can go to it directly here: http://holisticsportsnutritionist.com/the-most-important-tip-for-a-quick-recovery/

Aimee Gallo

May 23, 2013 at 9:27 am

Trish –
Organic milk is definitely a better choice – especially if you know you are not going to step away from dairy completely. Many women have a very hard time keeping weight off when hormones begin to shift towards menopause – this is in part because we become more sensitive to the blood sugar fluctuations of carbohydrates as the hormones shift toward menopause. Fat loss after 40 is a whole different ball game! You are spot on with being picky about your carbohydrate sources and consuming fewer than before. Emphasize your veggies and lean meats now – good for the bones and overall health and will help prevent weight gain!

Aimee Gallo

May 23, 2013 at 9:29 am

Holly, the egg sandwich sounds great! That sounds like it will be along the ideal post-workout recovery ratio. I had a link in the post to some ideas on a video I created, as well as some recipes you can download. It seems several people missed that link so here it is:
http://holisticsportsnutritionist.com/the-most-important-tip-for-a-quick-recovery/

Joy

May 28, 2013 at 8:53 am

Amen! I am vegan, and have been appalled at the big push for chocolate milk because of both health and ethical aspects. I also try to avoid gluten, and have mostly switched to brown rice pasta – because I do love pasta. I think you might be right about carb moderation; I think I tend to be a bit heavy on the carbs (60-70%) and most days make a conscious effort to somewhat increase my protein intake. That said, my biggest concern is trying to stick to more whole foods, lots of fruit and veggies, and try to decrease the excess sugar I tend to sneak in.

Lily

June 01, 2013 at 7:48 am

Following a two hour run with a big glass of chocolate milk would have me running for the bathroom. Ugh. Milk has that effect in general on me; somehow chocolate milk (and after strenuous exercise) would be even worse.

I avoid dairy (with the exception of having some cheese or an ice cream treat maybe once a month) and follow the Paleo template. I get lots of carbs from starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, squash, and carrots. Paleo is worth looking into!

When I used to consume dairy, I had a constant post-nasal drip and moderate acne. Both went away after cutting dairy.

Arwen

June 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm

So, I hear your thoughts on what you don’t like about it, AND I appreciate your corrections regarding intolerance versus allergies. I know I tolerate milk just fine in normal portion sizes (as opposed to typical American portions). Frozen yogurt seems to me an awesome substitute, but as you say here, too many of these products that are sweet are full of corn syrup, or the possibly less evil, table sugar. What are you saying you’d rather see people down after a hefty athletic event? A whey based powder product? That stuff makes me gag, but if I feel crummy enough after a workout (which happens to me if I really push myself), it’s the only thing that makes me feel better, so I will blend it with ice and choke it down.

Chris

February 24, 2014 at 6:45 am

I love Athleta products and was psyched when I found this blog. I have to say, I’ve been very disappointed in the content of the nutrition page. It seems to be very much in vogue right now to hate on dairy products. There is no good science to back this up. I’m also a physician and I listen to my patients tell me these things they get from blogs like this. Excessive hormones have not been found in dairy products from animals who have gotten hormones. AND, there has not been any clear link to adverse outcomes. Dairy is not evil! In fact, it is almost impossible to get enough calcium in your diet and eat only whole foods if dairy is not part of your diet. Calcium is important for children and women of all ages. If you have a true allergy or intolerance to dairy, then yes, you should avoid it. But the average person is not going to get any significant health benefits, indeed may be harmed, by completely cutting out dairy.

Darcy

October 16, 2014 at 8:22 am

This article was thought-provoking, but I have to say that my favorite part was the photo at the end. Thanks for tempering a serious subject with a bit of humor 🙂

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