Recovery Nutrition and The Chocolate Milk Debate

Lisa M. Lutchka, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

Eat Move Win, LlC

       Athletes know that optimal nutrition is crucial to recovery and to maintaining a high level of performance throughout a season.  But what, exactly, constitutes recovery nutrition?  And, is the hype over chocolate milk, or any other sports drink on the market, truly warranted? 

          First, a few basics.  Generally speaking, recovery nutrition is a snack, drink or small meal that provides both carbohydrate and protein, and includes rehydration strategies as well.  It functions to refuel and repair muscles.  It should also function to support overall health, thus helping the athlete to avoid fatigue, illness and infections over the course of a long season, and prevent chronic disease over a lifetime.  For a recreational athlete trying to lose weight, only use recovery eating after a fairly long and intense workouts, and consider reducing the overall amount of carbohydrate.  In this case, it is critical that nutrients come from high quality sources, since total daily calorie intake is often limited.

           So, how much carbohydrate and protein?  Typical recommendations for athletes are based on body weight.  Approximately 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight is recommended.  Then, add protein… approximately ¼ to ½ of the amount of carbohydrate, i.e., a 4:1 to 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.  Another critical variable is timing.  Drinking or eating the recovery meal should occur within 30 minutes after exercise.  In fact, by waiting to eat until 2 hours after exercise, recovery is cut in half.  Getting in the habit of having an appropriate recovery snack soon after every workout is one key to success.

          Now, back to the carbohydrate and protein.  Is ANY form of carbohydrate and protein OK, if I get the right amount of each?  Can I just eat a Snickers Bar and call it good?  What are the “types” of carbohydrate and protein to choose from?  Does one work as well as another? 

           There are pros and cons to various ingredients and recovery strategies.  Taking a close look at low fat chocolate milk, we discover that at its most basic, the carbohydrate is in the form of milk sugar called lactose (glucose + galactose), and added “table sugar”, or sucrose (glucose + fructose).  So, the carbohydrate is in a simple form, which soon is digested into glucose, fructose, and galactose.  The latter two are then converted to glucose, which is ultimately used as fuel.  Most research has shown that a combination of simple carbohydrates, such as those in chocolate milk, are indeed preferable to complex carbohydrates when very quick recovery is needed.  This means that if the next workout is, let’s say, 4 hours after the first one, quick recovery, and thus simple carbohydrate, is ideal. 

          But, let’s think about long term, overall health.  Think back to that “added table sugar”, i.e., sucrose.  That’s the white sugar.  If a 150# athlete were to drink chocolate milk in the amount needed to refuel his muscles, he would be sucking down 11 teaspoons of added sugar every time he used chocolate milk for recovery.  11 teaspoons!  That’s about ¼ cup of sugar!  Somehow, that just doesn’t sound like “optimal nutrition”.  Is there a better way to get those simple sugars?   One that would refuel our muscles AND provide other health advantages?

        Yes!  One way would be to use just about any fruit (a good source of glucose and fructose), perhaps some vegetables, and also to use dates (a good source of glucose) as a “sweetener” rather than sucrose.  This is a great combination for smoothies, or even to munch on after a workout.  These sources of simple carbohydrate also provide numerous nutrients and antioxidants, and can contribute to a more alkaline state within the body, which is important to overall health and perhaps also to maintaining muscle mass and bone health.

         Complete proteins, those that have all of the essential amino acids (which our body cannot produce), are desirable in recovery nutrition. When looking at the protein part of the equation, we see that milk protein is mainly casein, with a smaller percentage of whey.  These are two forms of complete proteins. Complete proteins are found in animal sources, such as dairy (casein and whey), meat, poultry, eggs and fish.  We also now know that certain plant proteins, such as hemp, are complete.  Complete proteins are desirable in recovery nutrition. 

         Research “tells us what it tells us”.  What we know so far is that a combination of whey and casein, and whey or casein alone (perhaps to a lesser extent), appear to be effective in recovery.  When rapid recovery is critical, they may be more effective than soy.  It is also more effective to add protein to the recovery mix, rather than to just have carbohydrate alone.   That’s about where the formal comparisons end, at least at this point, so there are many questions yet to be answered. 

       There are numerous reasons why hemp protein may be effective in recovery.  It is a complete protein, and compared to casein and whey, it is unprocessed, easily digested and absorbed, contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthful omega-3 fats, and is hypoallergenic.  Hemp is much more alkaline-forming than most other proteins, casein and whey included. Therefore, it may be a good long-term strategy to use hemp in the recovery period.

       An athlete who focuses on quality, and not just quantity, of their nutrient intake stands to perform better throughout the season, as well as gain longevity in their sport.  Adequate muscle fueling and repair is an important goal of recovery eating, and there are strategies to accomplish this with maximum health benefits as well.  Think not just of the principles of recovery, such as timing and grams of nutrients, but also of the highest quality foods that will promote optimal health. 

Try these tasty smoothies for a super healthy recovery snack.  To further increase the protein, add more protein powder.  Feel free to get creative with your own combinations!

Cinnamon Banana Date Shake

1 ½ -2 cups almond milk

4 Medjool dates, pitted (if hard, soak 1 hour before blending)

2 medium frozen bananas, cut into chunks

1 teaspoon cinnamon

4 Tablespoons hemp protein powder

Blend everything for about 60 seconds until smooth and thick. 

411 calories, 76 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 7 g fat

Berry Powerhouse

1 cup frozen blueberries

½ cup fresh or frozen strawberries (or other fruit)

1 small banana

1 packed cup fresh baby spinach leaves or kale

½ cup orange juice

½ cup unsweetened almond milk, or water

1 Tbsp ground flax seed

2 Tbsp vanilla hemp protein powder

Blend everything for about 60 seconds until smooth.

502 calories, 102 g carbohydrate, 12 g protein, 7  g fat

Tip:  to increase the protein for a recovery shake, use soy milk, and/or increase the protein powder

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