The Argument Arena: Is Chocolate Milk the Best Post-Workout Recovery Option?
Welcome to the Argument Arena. There are so many useless debates that float throughout our society, it’s time to get rid of a few of them. In each edition of the Argument Arena, I will highlight one of these debates and place both sides in the center of a boxing ring. I will start by outlining the background of the debate, and bring you up to speed. Next, I will choose and describe the losing side, and try to honestly capture their best arguments. I will finish the article with a hot-take which refutes the other argument and supports my own. Every article will be on totally different subjects, ranging from sports to culture to nonsense. I hope you enjoy this first topic.
Let’s Settle the Debate: Is Chocolate Milk the Best All-Around Sports Recovery Drink?
I know what you’re thinking. Chocolate milk? A sports recovery drink? Let me assure you I am not a pre-adolescent in disguise attempting to trick my parents into granting my chocolate milk requests. Nor am I a nursing home resident hoping to turn chocolate milk Thursdays into chocolate milk dailies. This is a serious argument, let’s settle it once and for all.
Hydration is one of the most important tools for recovery from workouts; for most of history, athletes turned to the most basic drink available: water. However, water alone fails to replace many of the electrolytes, carbohydrates, and nutrients the body naturally expels during and after a workout. In 1965, a team of scientists at the University of Florida developed a sports drink which sought to hydrate athletes as well as replace the electrolyte and carbohydrate losses resulting from the hot Florida sun.
I am sure this is old news to you, as Gatorade has since become one of the most popular drinks in the United States. Gatorade dominated the market for sports recovery drinks for 23 years until the creation of PowerAde in 1988, and only recently has the market for sports drinks expanded beyond these two powerhouses. Prior to 2007, Gatorade and PowerAde together constituted 97% of the sports recovery drink market.
However, recently a new trend altered this landscape: protein. In the past ten years, protein supplements and milkshakes have exploded upon the scene. If you told someone forty years ago that athletes of the future would drink protein laced milk shakes twice a day, you would be laughed at. That poor soul of the 70’s would have ran to a phone booth, rifled through the Yellow Pages, and left a message on their friend’s answering machine describing how crazy you were. But today, protein shakes are now more common in gyms than ever before, and that is why these next three words should not surprise you: enter chocolate milk.
The Losing Side: Chocolate Milk is the Best All-Around Sports Recovery Drink
In 2006, Joel Stager—physiologist and director of Indiana University’s Human Performance laboratory—published a study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism claiming chocolate milk as the optimal sports recovery and post-workout drink. There is some merit to this hypothesis, as chocolate milk represents a hybrid between carbohydrate replenishing sports drinks such as protein shakes and fluid replenishing sports drinks such as Gatorade and PowerAde.
Chocolate milk contains twice the carbohydrate and protein content of Gatorade or PowerAde. This provides for muscle recovery by allowing muscles to metabolize after the workout and replace the muscle’s store of fuel, or glycogen. Chocolate milk also contains more water content than traditional protein shakes, increasing hydration. Finally, chocolate milk contains far more calcium than either protein shakes or Gatorade/PowerAde, and contains less sugar and salt. “It’s water plus a whole lot more,” in Stager’s words.
This all seems to make sense, but claiming a childhood drink most affiliated with crazy straws and milk bubbles as the most effective sports recovery drink in the world of Gatorade and PowerAde requires some proof. So, Stager conducted his study to verify his hypothesis. Stager instructed nine male, endurance-trained cyclists to ride intervals until they were completely exhausted, and let them rest for four hours with a sports recovery drink before conducting the test again. Stager provided some cyclists fluid replenishment drinks such as Gatorade and PowerAde, provided some cyclists carbohydrate replenishment drinks such as protein shakes, and provided some cyclists chocolate milk.
The results speak for themselves. Cyclists provided chocolate milk performed 49% better than cyclists provided protein shakes. However, Gatorade and PowerAde beat this performance: cyclists provided Gatorade/PowerAde performed 54% better than cyclists provided protein shakes. Despite this result, Stager concluded chocolate milk represents the optimal sports recovery drink because of its competitive performance with Gatorade/PowerAde as well as its ability to provide the body with more carbohydrates and protein. However, Stager is on the wrong side of the Argument Arena. Chocolate milk isn’t the best sports recovery drink. Here’s why.
Gatorade/PowerAde Paired with a Post-Workout Snack is the Best All-Around Sports Recovery Option
Stager’s study clearly eliminated protein shakes from the running for best all-around sports recovery drink. Don’t get me wrong, protein shakes have their use. For high muscle-burn workouts such as weightlifting, the body needs less hydration or electrolytes and more protein to recover. Protein shakes are clearly the optimal form of sports recovery drink for these specific workouts. But the debate topic focuses on the best all-around sports recovery drink, and therefore, the argument now centers on Gatorade/PowerAde and chocolate milk.
Now I know, I’m cheating a little bit. I’m pairing Gatorade/PowerAde with a post-workout snack to put it over the edge of chocolate milk. But trust me, I’m right. Chocolate milk may be a hybrid of fluid replenishment and carbohydrate replenishment, but chocolate milk is overkill for the average active person not named Michael Phelps. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, our bodies require only .8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight, and our daily diets (especially in America) usually fulfill this need. “It’s not a nutrient that’s of grave concern,” says registered dietitian Andrea N. Giancoli, a policy analyst for the Beach Cities Health District in California. This is counterproductive for those seeking to lose weight from their workouts, as excess protein and carbohydrates transform into fat.
What our bodies truly need after an average, all-around workout is immediate relief: to rehydrate and replenish the lost electrolytes from sweat. This is exactly what Gatorade and PowerAde were developed to provide, and Stager’s study demonstrated their effectiveness. Additionally, Gatorade and PowerAde provide reduced sugar options for those not requiring an immediate energy boost, and alternative flavors for variety.
Pairing your post-workout Gatorade/PowerAde with a light snack such as a banana, yogurt and granola, or celery smeared in peanut butter puts this recovery option over the top. The light snack provides an after workout reward to incentivize further activity, and supplements the Gatorade/PowerAde with some—but not all—of the protein and carbohydrates chocolate milk provides. And I don’t know about you, but if all I consume after a hard cardio workout is a glass of chocolate milk, I’m treating myself and my empty stomach to a large and likely unhealthy dinner later. The light snack mitigates this desire far more than a glass of chocolate milk.
So there you have it. Chocolate milk is a surprisingly effective sports recovery drink. But is it the most effective all-around recovery option? Nope, it is overkill. Instead, the winner is Gatorade/PowerAde with a light after workout snack. Yeah, I cheated slightly, but get over it. The debate is settled.