GOMAD: Risks and Uses of Milk to Build Muscle

by Brian on April 9, 2011

GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) is a popular weight gaining strategy used by lifters looking to quickly add muscle mass while minimizing fat gain. Some lifters have reported 20-30 pounds of muscle gain in as little as one month.

I follow a fairly strict paleo diet which disallows milk, but as a lifelong skinny man with private dreams of oozing raw muscular power I decided to give GOMAD a second look after reading about it in Tim Ferris’s best-selling book The 4-Hour Body.

Despite the fact that milk is generally given the thumbs down on a strict Paleo Diet, milk and dairy products are still a bit of a gray area in the paleo community. We humans generally show poor adaptation to milk with a range of problems such as lactose intolerance and milk allergies, but there is some evidence that suggests up to 25% of people may be able to drink milk problem free.

First, the good news.

Benefits of GOMAD

A gallon of whole milk not only packs a solid 2,400 calories, those calories are neatly balanced between protein, fat, and carbs. Dollar for dollar, milk is also by far the cheapest way to consume the massive amounts of calories you need to facilitate muscle growth.

Milk is also easy to consume since it allows you to drink your calories. It’s much easier to follow up each meal with a couple glasses of milk than it is to eat an additional 3 steaks per day.

That sole natural purpose of milk is to explode the weight of a baby calf hundreds of pounds over its first few months of life, so it’s little surprise that it should pack such a punch when used for our own muscular growth.

Milk Myths

Even if you are familiar with the paleo diet you still may be asking yourself why we are even debating whether or not GOMAD might be a good strategy since after all, “isn’t milk necessary for strong bones and a healthy body anyway?” I mean surely, more of a good thing must be even better.

Alas, the marketing we were exposed to as children simply isn’t true.

Myth #1 – Milk is good for your bones because it contains lots of calcium.

Truth #1 – Milk is net acidic which means that despite it’s high calcium content, it actually leaches calcium from your bones to buffer the acidity. If you drink milk, you will need to make up for the acid deficit by eating highly alkali foods like green leafy vegetables.

Myth #2 – Doctors have lied to us and too much calcium is bad for your bones.

Truth #2 – On the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the “calcium myth” since there is a strong correlation between high dairy consumption and osteoporosis. The main problem with milk is not the excess calcium, it’s the net acidic effect on your bones.

And now for the bad news.

Risks and Dangers of Milk

Broadly speaking there are three main problems with milk consumption:

  1. Lactose intolerance
  2. Milk protein intolerance
  3. Milk allergies

Lactose Intolerance

Despite popular belief, lactose intolerance is not a rare condition that only affects a small portion of the population. Humans (and all animals) are genetically programmed to become less lactose tolerant as they get older. Most people will become lactose intolerant at some point in their life.

All milk, including human breast milk, contains the sugar lactose. Young humans (and other mammals) produce an enzyme called lactase that digests lactose and turns it into glucose which can be used by the body. Evolutionarily speaking, consumption of cow’s milk is a relatively new thing to humans and breast feeding would have completely stopped by age 4 or 5.

Without the need to digest lactose, the lactase producing mechanism atrophies and dies over time. However, some studies have shown that lactase production is not a “use it or lose it” function, so the decline in lactase production seems to be pre-programmed into us.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance (from WebMD):

  • Bloating.
  • Pain or cramps in the lower belly.
  • Gurgling or rumbling sounds in the lower belly.
  • Gas.
  • Loose stools or diarrhea. Sometimes the stools are foamy.
  • Throwing up.

If you have noticed any of these symptoms after drinking milk, you are most likely lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance can be conquered in a few ways:

  1. “Lactose free” milk – or more accurately, milk that has had lactase added to it to pre-digest the lactose.
  2. Lactase drops – make your own lactose free milk by adding lactase (buy here)
  3. Lactaid – a popular brand of digestive aid containing lactase

Note that the severely lactose intolerant should completely avoid milk as none of these options will get rid of 100% of the lactose. I notice that even when consuming “lactose free” milk I still experience mild gas afterwards.

Tim Ferriss says that for some people lactose intolerance may disappear after a week or two of GOMAD. I would never have made it this long without extreme gastro-intestinal discomfort. Be skeptical.

Casein or Whey Intolerance and Milk Allergy

Casein and whey are the main proteins in milk. Milk proteins are about 80% casein and 20% whey (compared to 40% casein and 60% whey in human breast milk). Though it is a bit more complicated than that as casein is actually a catch all term for a family of similar proteins. Even if you are not lactose intolerant, you may be intolerant to milk proteins or even full blown milk allergy.

Intolerance to milk proteins or milk allergies are often confused with lactose intolerance, but they are not the same thing.

Immediately after consuming milk, signs and symptoms of a milk allergy might include (from Mayo Clinic):

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting

Signs and symptoms that may take more time to develop include:

  • Loose stools, which may contain blood
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Itchy skin rash, often around the mouth
  • Colic, in babies

Needless to say, if you have an allergy or uncomfortable intolerance to casein don’t even think about GOMAD. Avoid milk completely.

Insulin Response: The Curveball

Anyone concerned about consumption of carbs and high glycemic foods might immediately go into panic when they learn that insulin response to milk is actually higher than that of white bread.

Unlike other foods, the insulin response (reflected in the insulin index, II) of protein rich foods is higher than would be predicted by the glycemic index (GI), which measures the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. In the case of milk the lactose sugar and protein seem to have an additive effect on insulin response which puts the II for whole milk at 149 compared to white bread with II 100 (II for protein sources: beef 51, eggs 39, and fish 59).

Many proponents of the paleo diet outright demonizes carbs for their ability to cause huge insulin surges which lead to the chronic obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes we see in the developed world today. However, as James Krieger points out, this is faulty thinking and insulin is not the enemy. He points more to simple over-eating as the cause for obesity.

Grain-based carbs have their own problems, but as long as you are lifting the weights necessary to stimulate muscle growth along with your increased calorie consumption it will be virtually impossible to develop insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.

Dairy may have its problems, but it turns out that the high insulin response is not one of them.

My own story with milk

Milk didn’t bother me when I was younger, but I grew quite lactose intolerant in my mid 20s. Even the slightest hint of milk mixed into something would cause some viciously stinky gas. After being exposed to the paleo diet and connecting the milk with the gas, I cut liquid  milk out of my diet entirely. I do sometimes eat cheese which doesn’t bother me as much.

I have stuck to a grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free paleo diet about 80% of the time for the past 2-3 years, and closer to 95% of the time for the past year with the occasional carb or cheese. As a result my rarified food choices and generally increased awareness of what I eat, my reactions to food have gotten highly sensitive.

Before going full GOMAD, I tried re-introducing milk to my diet with Organic Valley lactose free 2% milk. I drank a glass or two per day over a two week period and immediately started to notice deleterious effects on my health:

  • Despite being “lactose free” I still experienced mild gas.
  • My face developed a light puffiness about 30-60 minutes after drinking the milk.
  • Noticeably increased heart rate almost immediately after drinking the milk and lasting 20-30 minutes
  • Feeling stressed for no apparent reason (I read this may be an immune reaction to milk triggering the release of cortisol, the stress hormone)

Additionally, the taste almost felt like there was this chemical afterburn in the back of my mouth. Perhaps that was just a negative reaction to the milk, or perhaps it had something to do with actual chemical processing (homogenization, pasteurization, fat reduction, addition of lactase).

Your individual scenario may vary, but given my results I decided to stop drinking milk and abandon GOMAD. The idea of putting on 20-30 pounds of muscle in a month is attractive, but not worth it if you have to sacrifice health and well being. It’s almost as if my adult body was telling me it was not designed to fuel explosive growth with milk the way a young child’s is.

Alternatives to GOMAD

So the GOMAD experiment for me was a bust, but what are the alternatives?

You’ve probably seen a variety of other “milks” in your supermarket such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, hemp milk, and coconut milk. However, the nutritional content of these are all vastly different and simply grouping them all as “milk” is a bit misleading. I generally wouldn’t recommend these alternative milks as they are highly processed foods–ie, don’t resemble anything like what the actual food looks like in nature. However, whatever you do, do not drink soy milk. Soy is high in harmful phytoestrogens, especially for men. Sorry vegetarians.

One exception to avoidance of alternative milks is coconut milk. It is pretty close to its natural state and is essentially made by blending the coconut meat together with the coconut water. However, while some body builders swear by coconut milk and it has its place in a healthy diet, it is not a good alternative to GOMAD. Coconut milk is almost entirely saturated fat and no protein.

I should also mention that I tried a “can of coconut milk a day” and had to quit within days because of severe stomach discomfort and diarrhea. It may have worked better if I spread it out throughout the day, but it’s definitely way too dense to consume all at once.

While they lack the simple convenience of drinking your calories, I found two possible alternatives to GOMAD suggested by the CrossFit community:

  • 1 lb of grass-fed ground beef a day
  • 1 dozen eggs a day

You might also supplement your calorie intake with tasty Primal Shakes to fuel your muscle building efforts.

General Recommendations

Proceed with caution – Milk tolerance seems to be highly individual. Introduce milk into your diet slowly and monitor your response to it. If you experience any of the symptoms of lactose intolerance or milk protein intolerance, stop drinking milk.

If you have been consuming milk and cheese regularly up to this point, try taking a week off from dairy to give yourself time to “forget” what it feels like to consume milk. You may be so use to adverse effects on your body that you don’t even notice them. Then reintroduce milk to your diet and see how you react to it.

Consume more meat and eggs - there’s nothing magical about milk, it’s not even a particularly good source of vitamins and nutrients. It’s main value lies in its cheapness and convenience. Simply eating more protein will accomplish the same thing and most people are able to handle meat and eggs fine.

Don’t be in a hurry - Exploding your muscles to Herculean proportions in under 30 days is a sexy idea, but what’s the rush? Odds are you will be around a few more years and would still have to keep working to maintain that muscle mass anyway. Young bodies are built for explosions in weight, but adult bodies seem to respond more favorably to gradual changes.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Hugh February 18, 2012 at 4:55 am

20-30 pounds of muscle gained in month?

Might be some useful info in this piece, but that statement off the top totally discredits anything below.

Reply

Brian February 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

Read “4-Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss for various claims made about this strategy.

If you read this post you’ll see that you’ve assumed it’s something it’s not, as I’m not a fan of the GOMAD approach and aborted my experiment with it early on.

Reply

Rich May 6, 2012 at 2:41 am

Due to protein turnover rate in muscle tissue, it is generally impossible to add much more than 20 LBS of muscle in a YEAR or about an OZ a day.

If you are consuming a massive amount of milk you are consuming a massive amount of water, fat and sugar which will engorge your muscle tissue with glycogen. That being said, this effect WILL make the muscles larger while adding bodyweight… but this will give you a bulky, undefined look.

Your point about the body responding better to taking your time, eating right and training hard is on point.

Reply

jamalj July 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Should of read this first. Haven’t drank milk since high school and purchased a gallon of milk on my way home from the gym. Drank 2 large cups (1/3 of the gallon) and, 30 minutes later, I was in the bathroom for 2 hours.

WORSE EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE.

I’m gonna try those lactate pills and see how it works. Eating 12 eggs or a 1lb of beef a day is too much chewing for me.

Reply

Tim Ryan August 26, 2012 at 10:04 am

Hi Brian,

Thanks very much for your review of the GOMAD strategy. I will be attempting it in a month or so and will follow your recommendations on slow introduction and watching for symptoms.
How has your bulking attempt gone? I am trying to eat about 3000 calories a day… I haven’t been seeing any results but, then again, I haven’t been at it for that long either.
Take care, good luck with the weight lifting!

-Tim

Reply

Brian August 26, 2012 at 11:07 am

You can probably get to 3000 calories a day without doing GOMAD. If you’re an average guy you probably already eat 2000+, so it’s just like eating an extra meal per day. Healthier for you all around to eat regular foods if you can.

Since I wrote this I’ve shifted to a pure strength focus which is a different approach than bulking. Now I mainly use eating as a tool to maintain my energy and recover as quickly as possible between workouts. Even though I can’t drink cow milk, I find that a tall glass of goat milk right after lifting helps a lot (don’t GOMAD with goat milk though, the pre-formed vitamin A content is too high and you could get vitamin A poisoning if you drink it in such large quantities).

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Gonçalo September 21, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Hey there, some nice points here. I began the GOMAD diet because I’m an ectomorph with a very fast metabolism and I’ve never had any issues with milk (mostly 2% milk) so I decided to give it a try… I’ve been doing it for a week, drinking whole milk. So far so good, first few days made me feel like I was about to throw up because my body wasn’t used to taking that much calories in a day I felt VERY full most of the time and eating the extra meals was HARD, but my will strength drove me through it and now I can say it’s fairly easier to drink all the milk and the meals on top… so far I’ve gained 4lbs in the scale.. which I’ve never gained in a week… not even a month! I’ve been calculating my calories intake and with the GOMAD + breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner I’ve been hitting close to ~roughly 4500 calories! which is amazing! I guess this is the only way my body will put on some weight! Also doing more compound exercises at the gym, squats, bench press, deadlifts, pull ups.. If you can handle milk fine then I recommend GOMAD!

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Gautam Bhattacharjee March 11, 2014 at 4:41 am

Dear Friends, after reading about GOMAD, now I am going for the same. On the first day I had two liters of milk and continued the same for 3 days. Now I am consuming 3 liters and I am fine. Now I shall go for the complete 4 Liters( FULL GOMAD) for a months. Currently I weigh only 54 kg and my height is 5 feet 9 inches. I am too skinny. Hope so this will assist me transforming my body. I also go to the Gym that changes my body appearance but had to discontinue because of certain reason. I shall start the same again.
Thank you.

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