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.