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What Is a Sports Nutritionist?

What is a sports nutritionist? Check out this detailed guide about sports nutritionists and sports dietitians, plus how each can help you reach your goals.
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What powers athletes other than a competitive spirit and raw determination? Food. Optimal nutrition is a critical contributing factor to overall good health and athletic performance. Sports nutritionists advise athletes on eating habits that support these objectives. You may ask yourself: What does a sports nutritionist do? How does a nutritionist differ from a registered dietitian? How can a sports nutritionist from Top Nutrition Coaching help me achieve my objectives? We have answers to these and other questions about sports nutritionists and dietitians.

Why Do People Consult With Sports Nutritionists?

While most people can understand basic nutrition guidelines, misinformation can make it harder to sort truth from fiction. Athletes also have different nutritional needs from non-athletes. Depending on the sport, players may need more protein or complex carbohydrates to build muscle or ramp up their energy stores.

Athletic teams rely on sports nutritionists and dietitians to accomplish goals such as increasing muscle mass and attaining an ideal energy balance. Individual athletes seek out sports dietetics or nutrition experts for the same reasons. Along with exercise training and proper sports technique, nutritional care is key to any athlete's success.

What Does a Sports Nutritionist Do?

Every sports nutritionist works in a different setting and has unique responsibilities. Most sports nutritionists offer expert advice and undertake educational efforts to help athletes make sound nutrition choices. Sports nutritionists assist individual athletes in private practice, but many join sports nutrition or sports med programs at public universities and colleges. These health professionals also help sports teams meet their athletic goals.

While a fitness nutrition specialist like those affiliated with Top Nutrition Coaching can offer advice on both pre- and post-match nutrition. Indeed mentions that a sports nutrition professional does much more to help recreational and professional athletes:

  • Suggest dietary practices to improve sports performance
  • Create personalized meal plans
  • Recommend snack plans and practices
  • Counsel athletes with nutritional challenges
  • Answer questions and research new issues

What Is the Difference Between a Sports Nutritionist and a Sports Dietitian?

Sports nutritionists and sports dietitians share some core similarities, but there are some notable differences between them. A sports nutritionist should have an undergraduate degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field from a school approved by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. This professional must also have specialized training appropriate to sports nutrition. A nutritionist with this specialty counsels athletes, teaching and advising clients on healthy eating habits.

What is a sports dietitian, and how does this professional differ from a sports nutritionist? A dietitian can do everything a nutritionist does, but this person must often meet stricter requirements. A registered dietitian may have a bachelor's or master's degree but must also be licensed or certified by the state. This person can be a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, passing the relevant exams from the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

While most do not have the authority to diagnose health conditions, they can help treat medical conditions by providing specialized dietary recommendations and guidelines. Sports dietitians can order lab tests for their clients as needed.

What Are the Credentials of a Sports Nutritionist?

As mentioned earlier, the required credentials for sports nutritionists and sports dietitians are slightly different. To become a sports nutritionist, candidates must meet specific educational, training, and certification requirements.

Nutrition or Dietetics Education

The Bureau of Labor Statistics explains that nutrition specialists should have at least a bachelor's degree in their field. Those with graduate degrees often fare better in the job market. Their degrees should come from institutions accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.

Supervised Training

Candidates must undergo special training after completing their education to become a nutritionist. Usually, this training consists of a sports nutrition internship or residency program that coordinates nutritional care for athletes. Some sports nutrition and dietetics education programs include internships and residencies as part of their curriculum.

Licensing and Certification

Many states require licensing and certification with an appropriate governing body to practice as a sports dietitian. Board certification from the CDR is also mandated. However, a sports nutrition specialist can also obtain certificates from organizations like the International Society of Sports Nutrition. By doing so, sports nutritionists can demonstrate professional competency.

What Are the Benefits of Working With a Sports Nutritionist?

Professional sports teams work with sports nutritionists, but sports nutritionist expertise is also available to individual athletes. Working with a Top Nutrition Coaching sports nutrition specialist will enable you to enjoy some excellent advantages.

Personalized Nutrition Plans

Sound sports nutrition practices build upon basic nutritional principles. To improve athletic performance, you must be eating healthy in the first place. Each sports nutrition expert partnering with Top Nutrition Coaching analyzes the dietary practices of each client and creates a customized nutrition plan that meets the person's needs.

Performance-Based Recommendations

Several factors impact an athlete's performance: physical fitness, strength, speed, and even body composition. Sports nutritionists evaluate these factors and offer recommendations that help their clients be at their best. Some common goals include building muscle mass and weight management, but nutritionists also make dietary recommendations for training, athletic events, recovery, and off-season periods.

Help With Medical Issues

Every human body is unique. Many athletes also face health challenges: food allergies, gastrointestinal disturbances, disordered eating patterns, and even chronic illnesses such as diabetes or fibromyalgia. A sports nutritionist addresses nutritional challenges and creates an eating plan reflecting an individual's unique circumstances.

Am I a Good Candidate To Work With a Sports Nutritionist?

Many athletes look for guidance from a sports nutritionist. Suppose you need advice for eating during training phases, preparing for events, or achieving athletic performance while managing health conditions or special diets. In that case, you're an ideal candidate to work with a sports nutrition expert.

Eating for Training, Events, and Recovery

Every sport places unique demands on an athlete's body. Long-distance runners need innovative fueling strategies and hydration protocols to avoid losing momentum or dropping mid-race. Football players also need ample glycogen stores for energy, but they typically move in short bursts. After a big race or game, you need the proper nutrients to help muscles recover. You can learn how to eat for these situations from a Top Nutrition Coaching-partnered sports nutritionist.

Managing Health Conditions

When you're an athlete with a chronic illness, you must balance eating for your sport with managing your condition. Fortunately, many healthy eating practices help accomplish both objectives. However, it can be tricky to do this in some scenarios. Can an endurance cyclist with diabetes effectively load up on carbs before race day without negatively impacting blood glucose levels? How can an athlete with IBS manage fiber intake without triggering symptoms? Solving challenges like these often requires a sports nutritionist's expertise.

Navigating Dietary Restrictions

Athletes with food allergies face unique challenges getting the nutrients they need. Gluten insensitivity calls for alternative carbohydrate sources. Vegan athletes may have trouble getting sufficient B vitamin intake if they don't eat various foods. A Top Nutrition Coaching-affiliated sports nutritionist can teach you how to eat for your sport without triggering allergic reactions or suffering nutritional deficiencies.

Still not sure? 

Read more about what a sports nutritionist does here.

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About the author

Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN
I'm a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with education from Boston University and clinical training from both Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I specialize in helping the military and non-military individuals embrace nutrition as a partner in both their mental and physical health.

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