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Chocolate Milk: Muscle Nectar? Weight-Loss Secret? Neither.

Pick up any fitness magazine and you will see the virtues of chocolate milk extolled away, often times classified as the best thing you can drink after a workout. Over the past few years, chocolate milk has even been touted as a heart-healthy beverage (alas, a careful reading of the studies proves otherwise).

For some odd reason, a May 2010 article titled “The Chocolate Milk Diet” penned by Men’s Health editor-in-chief David Zinczenko was shared by a handful of people on my Facebook feed today.   I should note that despite having no background or credentials in nutrition science or health, Yahoo! Health identifies Mr. Zinczenko as a “health expert”.

If you are a new Small Bites reader, you should know that I have my share of — pardon the pun — beef with Men’s Health (for their ridiculous attacks on soy, their mixed messages, their condoning of ice cream, soda, and beer following a workout, and for the horrible underlying message behind their popular “Eat This, Not That” book series).

This particular article gushes endlessly about the many virtues of chocolate milk, mainly weight loss and muscle-building.  Although I shared the article on Twitter earlier today (prefacing the link with “Today’s daily dose of nonsense, courtesy of Men’s Health“), I felt the need to explain, in detail, my frustrations with it.

These sorts of articles irritate me to the extent they do because not only are they are read by millions, but they are presented as legitimate, objective, trust-worthy nutritional science, when that is not always the case.

Now, let’s tackle this piece — bit by bit.

“If your teacher gave you chocolate milk as a lunchtime treat, she was (unknowingly) giving you one of the most powerful weight-loss tools in the nutritional universe.”

Misleading statement number one.  No foods intrinsically produce weight loss.  Sure, there are foods that offer fiber, fat, and protein and can therefore help satiate you with fewer calories.  However, no food inherently produces weight loss.  Unless it is burned off, an excess of calories results in weight gain, regardless of the food source.  Of course, it is impossible to eat 900 calories of broccoli or plain oatmeal in one sitting due to their high fiber content (900 calories of soda, meanwhile, is certainly possible).

And, despite the dairy industry’s fervent claim that three servings of dairy a day can help with weight loss, the scientific evidence — when examined by individuals who don’t have ties to the Dairy Council — is scarce at best.

We haven’t even gotten to the greatest irony of all — the idea that a beverage made with added sugar (AKA empty calories) is somehow a powerful weight-loss tool.  Mind you, this is the same beverage that has sparked controversy over the past few years in relation to childhood obesity.  Yet, according to Mr. Zinczenko, chocolate milk in and of itself causes weight loss.

“Each bottle delivers a package of micro- and macronutrients that can help you shake off body flab and replace it with firm muscle.”

Macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) can not in and of themselves “shake off body flab and replace it with firm muscle”.  This sentence implies that simply eating “muscle foods” can replace flab with muscle, which is impossible without the added component of physical activity that stimulates muscle growth.

And, again, how does added sugar help shake off body flab and build muscle?

“That’s the crux of what I’m calling “The Chocolate Milk Diet,” which isn’t a diet at all.”

Of course it’s not a diet.  It’s a gimmick.  And, I suspect, a gimmick with industry ties.

“It’s essentially three eight-ounce servings of chocolate milk consumed at key points throughout your day: one when you wake up, a second before you exercise, and a third directly after your workout.”

Three 8-ounce servings of chocolate milk contribute 36 grams of added sugar to your day.  That’s four grams shy of a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, and as much added sugar as you get in TWELVE Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon cake Munchkins (donut holes).  Plain and simple, you’re looking at 144 empty calories.

“Alongside a healthy diet, it can help you drop lots of belly fat fast.”

What would weight loss promises be without vague statements. What number or percentage classifies as “lots”?  And what length of time is considered “fast”?  And, alas, there’s the kicker — “alongside a healthy diet”.  I thought chocolate milk was one of the most powerful weight-loss tools in the universe?

“When researchers in Nebraska analyzed five… studies, they were able to estimate that consuming 1,000 mg more calcium can translate to losing nearly 18 pounds of flab.”

Again — the research literature on calcium and weight-loss is far from conclusive.  Not to mention, this article propagates the ever-present myth that “calcium = dairy and ONLY dairy”.  Also, is the suggestion that we should be consuming an additional 1,000 milligrams (which is already the daily calcium recommendation) to what we are already consuming?  Confusing, to say the least.

“What’s more, other studies have shown that dairy foods offer the most readily absorbable calcium you can find.”

I beg to differ.  Here is one study showing that kale’s calcium is more absorbable than milk’s.  And, this study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — which I have yet to see refuted or disproven anywhere — shows that broccoli, brussel sprouts, and mustard greens offer a higher percentage of absorbable calcium than milk.

There is also plenty of research showing the important role vitamin K plays in bone health.  This is why some dark, leafy green vegetables (basically the ones that offer low levels of oxalates, which can interfere with calcium absorption) are bone health all-stars — they simultaneously provide calcium and vitamin K.  Milk, for the record, contains no vitamin K.

“Most experts agree that the average American isn’t getting enough D. One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 70 percent of American children had low levels of D in their diet. The thing is, your body makes vitamin D naturally when you expose your skin to sunlight, but most people spend too much time indoors to benefit. And intentionally spending more time in the sun could put you at risk for skin cancer. The solution? Drink up. Chocolate milk, like most milk, is fortified with vitamin D.”

Impressive — multiple nutrition misinformation in one small paragraph.

Vitamin D is mainly present in our food supply as a result of fortification.  In other words, it’s tacked on during processing because it is present in virtually no foods.  So, the real solution is not to drink chocolate milk, but rather to supplement it on your own, either as a tablet or a gelcap.  Additionally, current guidelines that call for 600 International Units of vitamin D a day are painfully behind years of mountains of research which successfully argue that the necessary amounts for optimal health are significantly higher (and would require at least 7 cups of chocolate milk, which brings the added sugar total to 21 teaspoons!).

Besides, milk is not the only beverage fortified with vitamin D.  Most alternatives — soy, hemp, almond, coconut — are also fortified.  I am continually baffled by the mon-stop vitamin D press dairy milk gets, as if it had exclusive rights to vitamin D fortification.  It doesn’t.

“You want to skip the whole milk, too, as it has too many calories to make it a regular habit. The best option is 1%, or low-fat chocolate milk. It has the fat you need to absorb crucial vitamins, yet at three cups a day, it will save you 120 calories over whole milk.”

If calories are a concern, why is Mr. Zinczenko so hell-bent on people taking in an additional 144 calories from the added sugar in chocolate milk?

“If you want to lose the gut, you’ve got to exercise—no surprise there. But here’s a fact that’s not so obvious: Drinking chocolate milk can improve your gains. In a study published in The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, subjects given chocolate milk before hopping on the stationary bikes were able to ride 49 percent longer than subjects given a generic carbohydrate-replacement beverage.  And on top of that, they pedaled even harder.  The reason? Milk has naturally occurring electrolytes that keep you hydrated and its natural sweetness helps push more energy into your muscles.”

Soy milk has those same electrolytes — sodium and potassium — in higher quantities than carbohydrate-replacement drinks or electrolyte-fortified sports drinks.  And, so does actual food — say, a banana slathered with some almond butter.

And, while it is true that unsweetened dairy milk has natural sweetness (it intrinsically contains a sugar called lactose), it is misleading — bordering on downright false — to talk about chocolate milk’s “natural” sweetness, when each 8-ounce serving has a tablespoon of added sugar.

“Researchers have determined that the ideal protein load for building muscle is 10 to 20 grams, half before and half after your workout. How much protein will you find in low-fat chocolate milk? Eight grams per cup.”

That’s the same amount you find in a cup of soy milk.  Again, let’s also remember that plenty of foods offer protein.  Sandwiches or fruit and nut (ie: a banana and 23 almonds) combinations are convenient, tasty, and offer the appropriate carbohydrate and protein ratios.

“And don’t forget, you can still melt those 18 pounds of belly fat without giving up your favorite foods. You just need to make smart swaps, and we’ve got 10 new ones. You’ll lose weight faster than ever—again, with ever dieting again.”

Lovely.  Wrap up a misleading article with more “Eat This, Not That” silliness (this particular link brands a Chik-Fil-A sandwich with an “Eat That” because it is lower in calories than its competitor, even though it offers almost three-quarters of a day’s worth of sodium).

One more important note before I end.  Often times, these debates turn into a “vegan” vs “omnivore” battle.  I, for one, am not vegan.  Mostly, but not entirely (I occasionally eat seafood, eggs, and dairy).

I point that out because I want to make it perfectly clear that my intent for writing this post was to dissect an article, not because it went against what I eat, but because it presented misleading and incorrect information as objective facts.  This is not about being a vegan, a vegetarian, a pescatarian, or an omnivore.  It is about being fed up, as a soon-to-be Registered Dietitian, with self-proclaimed experts who ultimately confuse the general public with erroneous nutrition claims.  The best thing chocolate milk has going for it is a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and relentless lobbying power.

And, PS: if you have been led to believe that veganism leads to scrawniness and that “it is impossible to be an athlete and be vegan”, I refer you to this 2008 article from The Wall Street Journal.

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17 Comments

  1. CferMN said on May 6th, 2011

    Great post, Andy! Thank you for taking a critical eye to articles such as this and poking the holes in their misguided, biased logic. I do not have training in nutrition or health, so this information is highly valuable to me as it is getting harder and harder for me to distinguish fact from fiction.

    To me it still boils down to Michael Pollan’s sage advice — one that you advocate so well — to just eat real food.

  2. Brandon said on May 6th, 2011

    Speaking of Vitamin K, there’s some Paleo eaters that like to talk about Vitamin K2 in their foods that come from grass fed cows (beef butter etc). Can you elaborate on K2? Thanks!

  3. Justine said on May 6th, 2011

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative post!

  4. Mrs. Q said on May 6th, 2011

    Hilarious!

  5. shawmutt said on May 7th, 2011

    Great post! I found you thanks to Weighty Matters, and will be reading your blog as well from now on. It’s funny to see some of the silly beliefs I hold, including that putting chocolate flavored sugar water in milk makes it healthier!

  6. Bev said on May 7th, 2011

    I’m not surprised. Men’s Health had Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino on their cover and if you’ve ever watched Jersey Shore, you know he is the furthest thing from a healthy man that you can get. They need to change the name of that rag.

  7. Evilcyber said on May 8th, 2011

    While I generally agree with your criticism of the Men’s Health article, this does read more like an attack on milk itself than on that article.

    You listed various foods that for certain nutrients have the same amount as milk, but I’d say you would be hard pressed to come up with a single food that can replace milk on its own.

    What strikes me as rather strange is the recommendation to supplement vitamin D via tablets. A healthy nutrition doesn’t have to rely on supplements in any form, neither from artificially added vitamins in foods, nor on pills.

    Normally vitamin D doesn’t have to be supplemented at all, as the vast majority of people have enough sun exposure to generate adequate amounts.

  8. Andy Bellatti said on May 8th, 2011

    “Evilcyber”,

    It is not as much an attack on milk as it is an attack on the relentless campaigning and lobbying by the National Dairy Council that milk is the most perfect beverage around. I just can’t let hyperbolic — and often inaccurate — facts pass without letting people know that a lot of the milk buzz is just that — buzz. There are so many nations where dairy consumption is significantly lower than the US, and their rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures are significantly lower. As I stated in this post, I eat dairy occasionally (I distinctly pointed that out to avoid “you’re just saying that cause you’re vegan!” critiques that distract from the issue at hand).

    I am not sure what you mean by “a single food that can replace milk on its own”? In terms of absorbable calcium? I listed several examples. In terms of vitamin E? Nuts. The whole point of this post was to show that while dairy is a good source of certain nutrients, it does not have exclusive rights to anything.

    I am a “food first, then supplements” person, but not when it comes to vitamin D. The research clearly indicates we need to be getting at least 2,000 International Units a day, a figure that is impossible to get solely from food. Unlike other nutrients that do not work well outside of the food matrix (ie: vitamin E), vitamin D in supplement form is just as effective as that in food (because practically every food that contains it does so through fortification).

    Also, the vast majority of people do not have enough sun exposure to generate adequate amounts. Anyone who lives north of the latitude of Atlanta, Georgia (regardless of what coast) does not get exposure to UVB rays (the ones involved in the production of vitamin D) from around late October to early April. This means you can be out in the sun for hours and all you will get is a sunburn (UVA rays) without making any vitamin D (UVB rays). Besides, the average moisturizer these days contains an SPF of 15, which blocks approximately 95% of UVB rays, thereby compromising vitamin D production.

    I can tell you from working with patients in outpatient and inpatient settings that vitamin D deficiencies are rampant. Most patients’ levels only fall into the normal range when they supplement 5,000 International Units a day for three months (another amount that is absolutely impossible to get from fortified food).

  9. Patricia said on May 9th, 2011

    I think your critique would look less like ‘an attack on milk’, if you made the point to distinguish plain skim/low fat milk from chocolate milk. You mention soy milk as well as almond milk, etc. as better/equivalent alternatives to chocolate milk, but fail to include plain milk in that list.

    As to what evilcyber said about a single food that can replace milk on it’s own, I believe what they meant was a single food that has an equivalent compliment nutrients (not eat this food for calcium, and then eat this food vitamin E, but rather eat this food to get the same variety of nutrients contained in milk.

    Personally, I think a good fortified soy milk is as good as a glass of white milk…I try to drink one of these beverages regularly because 1) they have so many nutrients, 2) I am lucky to be able to digest lactose with no problems so why not? 3) I get tired of drinking plain water all the time and most other beverages are too unhealthy to consume on a regular basis, and 4) while I do eat kale and other greens occasionally (sometimes even once a week when in season, I personally don’t like them enough to eat sufficient quantities to meet my calcium needs but hats off to anyone out there who does!

  10. Josh said on May 9th, 2011

    The articles you’ve linked to are pretty bad. The original idea of taking chocolate milk after workouts is for people who are lifting weights and trying to build muscle. In this case, there is some evidence to suggest that taking a lot of sugar along with protein can be beneficial(*) and chocolate milk is a convenient and inexpensive way to do this. Men’s Health has, as is typical of them, taken this idea completely out of context to turn it into an implausible gimmick weight-loss diet for people who are presumably not bodybuilders.

    *: Although a lot of these studies seem to be done on fasted individuals so whether this is really advantageous is unclear. Nontheless, it is pretty clear that the sugar in chocolate milk will not be harmful when taken after intense weightlifting.

  11. Andy Bellatti said on May 9th, 2011

    Patricia,

    Part of the post, though, is also exposing the hyped-up press that accompanies dairy products in general. The Vitamin D issue, for instance, is one that I am always baffled by. Dairy gets all the vitamin D press, even though it is not the only beverage fortified with that vitamin. One of the points of the article was to make it clear that “dairy = weight loss” and “dairy = muscle gain” are not the hard and cold facts the Dairy Council wants people to believe they are.

    I still don’t see why a glass of chocolate milk keeps getting pushed down everyone’s throats while, say, a banana, peanut butter, and soy milk smoothie doesn’t.

  12. Andy Bellatti said on May 9th, 2011

    Josh,

    What makes the linked articles “pretty bad”?

    As to the claim that taking sugar with protein can be beneficial — I am well aware of the importance of protein and carbohydrates following a muscle-challenging workout. However, plain unsweetened milk already offers sugar in the form of lactose. There is no need for added sugar from chocolate milk. Heck, a glass of milk and a banana is a much better way of getting additional carbohydrates.

  13. Josh said on May 10th, 2011

    Sorry, I meant the men’s health and fitness magazine articles were bad, not the research or your other posts! And I do personally agree that consuming real foods such as a glass of milk and a banana is probably a better choice when available; it’s merely something that people have suggested as a quick, widely available, and inexpensive option in a pinch when. (Since a lot of ridiculous beverages marketed specifically for use after weightlifting are essentially milk protein and dextrose it’s amusing to note that chocolate milk is essentially the same thing.)

  14. Andy Bellatti said on May 10th, 2011

    Josh,

    Thanks for clarifying which articles you were referring to — I misunderstood and thought you meant the studies from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on calcium absorption.

    You make a very good point about those weightlifting beverages in comparison to chocolate milk.

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