November 11, 2013 • Sports Medicine

Nutritional Value: Sports dietitians are vital team players

A star female cross-country runner is sidelined with another stress fracture. The basketball team’s top scorer wishes to observe Ramadan by fasting from sunrise to sunset at the height of the season. An overweight football player goes down with cramps during preseason camp. A successful coach routinely takes the team to his favorite fast-food eatery on road trips, and the student-athletes are complaining about the lack of healthy choices.

What do all these scenarios have in common? For a sports dietitian, it’s simply another day at the office. For athletic trainers, coaches, administrators and other sports personnel connected to student-athletes, it’s a signal to work with an expert.

Sound nutritional practices set the stage for improved performances (in the classroom and on the field), fewer injuries and illnesses, and quicker recoveries. The health professional who is the expert in this arena is a sports dietitian — a registered dietitian who specializes in or whose focus is sports or performance-based nutrition. Having a qualified sports dietitian on the team fills a vital gap in any athletic setting, and it enhances the potential for success in working with student-athletes and parents.

Registered dietitian vs. sports nutritionist

Confusion persists regarding the expertise and qualifications of those dispensing sports nutrition information and guidance. Although “sports nutritionist” is a public-friendly term, it remains undefined and unregulated. A sports nutritionist, in other words, might be a registered dietitian, a professor with a Ph.D in exercise science, someone who sells supplements promoting weight loss or improved performance, or a self-appointed “nutrition expert” who has sat through a weekend seminar on sports nutrition.

The registered dietitian (RD) credential conveys a strict and concrete standard of competency comparable to that of other health professionals such as physicians, nurses and physical therapists. Those with the RD designation have secured a four-year degree from an accredited university, completed a supervised internship and passed a national board exam. To maintain their credentials, RDs also must continue to fulfill ongoing professional education requirements throughout their careers. In most states, RDs are the only professionals who legally can practice medical nutrition therapy — that is, science-based treatments for specific medical conditions.

Benefits of sports dietitians

In the athletic setting, a sports dietitian can fulfill numerous needs, as summarized by the joint position stance on the role of nutrition in athletic performance endorsed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Using current scientific data and the needs of individual athletes, sports dietitians do the following:

Assess athletes’ typical daily nutritional intake (food and supplements) during training, competition, and offseason for year-round optimal health and sports performance and provide specific strategies for meeting nutritional needs.

Assess the fluid intake and weight loss of athletes during exercise and make appropriate recommendations regarding total daily fluid and electrolyte intake as well as fluid and electrolyte intake before, during and following exercise.

Assess and provide appropriate nutrition guidelines to ensure adequate intakes of energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates, fat and micronutrients for athletes with special nutrition concerns such as vegetarians/vegans, pregnant athletes and those with metabolic disorders such as celiac disease (gluten intolerance) or diabetes.

Educate athletes and other sports personnel about energy requirements for their particular sport—the role of food in body fueling.

Develop appropriate and realistic weight and body composition goals and counsel athletes on nutritionally sound practices to reach and maintain an appropriate weight and body composition.

Provide individualized meal plans when warranted.

Evaluate any vitamin/mineral or herbal supplement, sports food or ergogenic aid an athlete wants to use, and provide guidance on legal, safe and effective methods to gain a competitive edge.

Build rapport with athletes, athletic trainers, coaches and family members, and disseminate ongoing sound and credible nutrition strategies to meet sports-related nutrition goals. For example, nutrition strategies while traveling and eating away from home, while exercising in extreme conditions, as well as timing of meals and snacks relative to activity.

Educate and consult with food-service director and staff on menus, training-table options and off-site meals for athletes.

Network and consult with other healthcare providers to develop comprehensive medical nutrition therapy for athletes with or at risk for eating disorders, celiac disease, diabetes, food allergies, high blood pressure, iron-deficiency anemia and other health-care concerns.

Screen for inadequate caloric intake (energy drain), disordered eating and eating disorders among potential incoming male and female student-athletes.

Sports Dietetics — USA

In 2004, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) formed a special sub-unit called Sports Dietetics — USA (SD-USA). This sub-unit is under the auspices of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN), the largest sub-practice group of the Academy with 6,000-plus members.

Qualified dietitians who join SD-USA are dedicated to promoting food and nutrition practices that enhance lifelong health, fitness and optimal performance. One of the key strategic goals of SD-USA is to obtain specialty certification for sports dietitians to enable medical personnel, sports teams and athletic departments, as well as recreational and professional athletes of all ages and abilities, to locate a qualified and credible sports-nutrition professional. This board certification (which meets the rigorous requirements of an independent credentialing commission) serves to differentiate sports dietitians from those who are less qualified to provide sports-nutrition services. Today, more than 550 certified sports dietitians work in various sport and fitness-oriented settings throughout the country.

Besides developing and maintaining core competencies and standards of practice for sports dietitians, SD-USA actively participates in research to optimize sports-nutrition practices and outcomes, provides leadership in translating sports-nutrition science into practice, and leads the way in forming partnerships with sports personnel who share common goals. Ultimately, athletes, sports organizations and the recreational public are better served and public health will be protected by the promotion of evidence-based sports-nutrition guidance.

Beyond certain academic requirements, sports dietitians also are required to display specific competencies, undertake practical experience and successfully complete a comprehensive board examination every five years. Sports dietitians are identified by the initials CSSD (Specialist in Sports Dietetics) after their name, which today is the premier professional sports nutrition credential in the United States.

To locate a sports dietitian, contact SCAN headquarters at 440-481-3560 or visit

Nutritional Value is a column that focuses on athlete health and wellness. It appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.

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