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Are Milk Shakes Bad for You?

Whether a milk shake is good or bad depends on its ingredients, your individual situation and fitness goals. Because shakes are based on protein-rich milk, they’re a good way to get extra calories for sports training or when you need to gain weight. Of course, the same calories create a problem when you’re on a weight-loss program. As long as you make your own and use low-fat alternatives, chances are you can enjoy an occasional guilt-free milk shake.

Ice Cream or Frozen Yogurt

One cup of vanilla ice cream has 274 calories and 14 grams of total fat, compared to 221 calories and 6 grams of total fat in frozen yogurt. The amount of cholesterol-raising saturated fat is a potential problem. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your daily calories. Based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, 1 cup of ice cream provides 5 percent of total calories from saturated fat, while frozen yogurt provides 2 percent. Different flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt all have about the same nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, calcium and sugar.

Choosing the Milk

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The type of milk you use further affects calories and fat. Recipes for milk shakes often call for whole milk, and some even call for the addition of heavy cream. To create a healthier milk shake, replace them with skim milk. One-half cup of whole milk, which is enough for one 12-ounce milk shake, has 75 calories, 4 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat. Skim milk drops to 42 calories and no fat. Be sure you buy milk fortified with vitamin D because your body can’t absorb calcium without it.

Putting It Together

In the end, it comes down to whether you can fit the calories and fat into your daily goals. A 12-ounce milk shake made from ice cream and whole milk contains 349 calories and 18 grams of fat. One made with frozen yogurt and skim milk has 263 calories and 6 grams of fat. You’ll get about 40 grams of carbs and 6 grams of protein from both versions. They have 34 to 41 grams of sugar, but half of it comes from natural sugars in the milk. Milk and ice cream do not cause a big spike in blood sugar, according to their glycemic index scores of 41 and 57, respectively.

Skip the Fast-Food Versions

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Fast-food restaurants are notorious for their high-calorie foods, and that includes their milk shakes. Vanilla milk shakes from two major fast-food chains -- including one marketed as being made from reduced-fat ice cream -- have 530 to 550 calories in a 12-ounce shake. They have 15 grams of total fat, 10 to 12 grams of saturated fat and 86 to 92 grams of total carbohydrates. Extras such as crumbled chocolate cookies, candy or whipped cream put any shake further over the top in calories and sugar.