Choose the perfect protein supplement with this advice from IFBB pro and nutrition consultant George Farah

Top picks: choose the perfect protein supplement with this advice from IFBB pro and nutrition consultant George Farah

Steve Stiefel

George Farah may be best known to fans as the man who survived gunshot wounds, bravely battling back from the near-death experience to successfully compete as a pro, most recently taking 12th at the 2005 Mr. Olympia. However, behind the scenes, he also works as a nutrition consultant for other pro and amateur bodybuilders.

In that role, he has developed strong opinions on the difference between a good and a great protein for someone working hard to get in shape. “When looking for a protein product, there are many factors to take into consideration,” he told FLEX. “You have to know what you’re looking for, and you probably want to keep cost in mind.”

First, you need to understand the difference between a slow-digesting and a fast-digesting form of protein. “There are times of day when you want a protein that will break down quickly and be absorbed faster by your body,” Farah explains. “Before and after your workouts or first thing in the morning are good times to take in a fast-digesting form of protein.”

A basic whey protein is a great supplemental form, and egg whites are a good whole-food option. “A basic whey protein should also be relatively inexpensive unless it has a lot of other ingredients added to it–if you’re not used to supplementing with protein, this is a good place to begin,” Farah adds.

“Casein proteins are slower-digesting and make good meal replacements for times when you want to have a slow steady influx of amino acids,” Farah continues. These times include long breaks between whole-food meals and before bed, as sleep represents a period when you won’t be consuming food for several hours. Whole-food options include cottage cheese (a casein-based food) and meat proteins, especially those with a little bit of fat.

In addition to digestive rates, Farah says that you should also consider using protein products that contain high-tech additives. “These add-ons often increase the price of the product, but they may also provide significant muscle-building benefits.” Farah provides a rundown on several of these ingredients and their positive effects.

* Glutamine Glutamine is the most common amino acid in the human body, and it’s naturally present in virtually all protein products. “Some formulas add [about two to five grams (g)] more glutamine [per serving] for its muscle-building benefits,” Farah says. Glutamine not only boosts the immune system, but it aids digestion and enhances recovery from weight training. FLEX recommends that bodybuilders take glutamine (5-10 g) before and after training, in the morning and before bedtime. You can add glutamine to either fast- or slow-digesting protein supplements, or simply take products that already contain it.

* BCAAs Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) help you recover from training. These aminos–leucine, valine and isoleucine–are all found in protein supplements, but many products include them in higher quantities for their muscle-enhancing properties. BCAAs can be taken with slow- or fast-digesting protein supplements. If you opt to take them separately (rather than finding them included in your shake), opt for them before and after workouts: 5-10 g per dose.

* Digestive enzymes “Many people have difficulty digesting protein products, and adding enzymes is a way to reduce indigestion and other forms of digestive distress,” Farah says. “Digestive enzymes are also great for enhancing absorption of amino acids, helping you get more benefit from each protein shake.” Most products don’t have these enzymes added, but you can find a specialty product that does, or else you can simply take a separate digestive enzyme supplement.

Many manufacturers are using the proprietary digestible enzyme Aminogen in their proteins; this research-proven formula has been shown to break down protein quickly for digestion for even speedier delivery to muscles.

* Fiber Fiber is a double-edged sword when it comes to protein products. “Fiber slows down digestion of the protein,” Farah says. “It also provides numerous other health benefits for bodybuilders, including enhancing digestion and the absorption of nutrients.”

However, Farah cautions that you probably want to avoid fiber before and after your workouts. “At this time of day, you want the aminos in your system quickly.” He suggests that you save protein products with fiber for other times when you want to slow down digestion. Look for products that supply close to 5 g per dose.

* Healthy fats “Most protein shakes are low in fat, but some include healthy fats to slow digestion,” Farah says. Omega-3 fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and even trans-fat-free oils, such as Enova, are necessary for numerous physiological processes. These fats not only provide health benefits, but new research shows that consuming them can actually help you battle bodyfat, add muscle mass and protect your joints from injury. If you’re going to take a protein supplement with healthy fats in the mix, use it as a meal replacement or before bed.

* Isolates Another element that can prove confusing in protein product selection is the qualifiers manufacturers append to the type of protein. “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between the names ‘whey protein concentrate’ and ‘whey protein isolate’ or ‘pure whey protein isolate,'” Farah says. The term ‘isolate’ refers to how the protein is manufactured.

Whey protein isolate (WPI) is a purer form of whey protein than concentrate because it’s processed even further than concentrate through longer filtering or an added step called ion exchange chromatography. This allows for a powder that is greater than 90% protein–its lower carbohydrate and fat content make it ideal to use when dieting.

* Carbs Many bodybuilders think adding carbs to a protein shake is a bad idea, but that’s not necessarily the case. “Before and after your workouts, you want to take in simple carbs to promote recovery,” Farah recommends. About 40 g of carbs before a workout and 40-100 g of fast-digesting carbs after a workout should do the trick. If your product has carbs, it can be a great pre- and postworkout protein supplement, especially if the protein itself is whey.

* Artificial sweeteners You can find protein products with aspartame or Splenda. Most of these are very low in carbs (usually containing two or fewer grams of carbs per serving). Artificial sweeteners make protein supplements more palatable, and although some people are concerned about consuming these chemicals, many studies have shown they are safe.

For more information about Farah or for more nutrition advice, visit


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