When most people think of nutrition or dietitians, the idea of “healthy eating” and weight loss often come to mind. However, the importance of sports nutrition goes far beyond current fad diets and body composition. In particular, sports dietitians work with student athletes to help them optimize energy for their busy and active lifestyle, better recover from training sessions, and even support their immune systems and cognitive function, among other benefits. Ultimately partnering with a sports dietitian who understands the unique needs of athletes, versus the general population, can enhance performance and improve mental health.
At Student Athlete Nutrition, our dietitians are also practical. We take the focus away from micromanaging numbers, since it can just add more stress to a student athlete’s plate and also contribute to their already increased risk of disordered eating. We instead focus on helping student athletes build automated habits, even with their hectic schedules, that support physical and mental nourishment.
Here are the top ways that Student Athlete Nutrition’s dietitians can support any student athlete:
1. Manage medical conditions that may affect training and performance
A sports dietitian is trained in medical nutrition therapy, enabling them to help you deal with a variety of medical conditions and ailments including:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Exercise related gastrointestinal distress
- Thyroid disorders
- Food allergies
- Nutrient deficiencies
Dietitians must go through a science-heavy accredited didactic undergraduate program as well asr a 1200 hour supervised practice internship that emphasizes clinical experiences with patients in a variety of settings. In addition to this 5-6 years of education and training, sports dietitians also complete extra coursework, continuing education, and internships in exercise physiology and sports nutrition so they are best equipped to merge the science of sports nutrition with the science of medical nutrition therapy. Sports dietitians understand that athletes have different physiological needs that need to be accounted for in conjunction with any medical considerations.
2. Help prevent – or recover from – injury
Intense exercise puts a strain on the body, and if you are not fueling adequately, your risk for injury increases. Under-fueling contributes to a variety of health and performance consequences including bone loss, impaired immune function, and decreased coordination and concentration. This highlights the importance of sports nutrition professionals in facilitating adequate energy and nutrient intake to ultimately prevent illness and injuries.
Hydration is also a crucial element of injury prevention. It’s common for athletes to be under-hydrated, and with just a 2% fluid loss, both physical and cognitive performance decline, impacting injury risk. Different training periods impact hydration and energy needs as well as optimal nutrient timing, and injury risk may be higher when transitioning from participation as a high school to collegiate athlete.
If you’ve been injured, or even have seen a teammate injured, you know it can be a stressful and frustrating time. A sports dietitian can help you navigate changes in your nutrition needs to assist in maintaining the muscle mass, strength, and endurance you’ve worked so hard for, while also assisting in recovery from your injury.
Helping you understand not only appropriate energy and protein needs, but also timing of intake is a critical first step. From there, your sports dietitian can help you determine the supplements that are appropriate for you and your specific injury, especially for those dealing with acute traumatic brain injury.
3. Bring nutrition expertise to coaching staff and care teams
While many people are likely to seek a personal trainer or even their coach for nutrition advice, 50% of personal trainers mistakenly believed that dehydration begins at 10% fluid loss and poor nutrition knowledge is found in about 70% of coaches. Even Athletic Trainers, who have a bachelor’s degree with similar science coursework to dietitians, have been found by their own governing body to lack adequate nutrition knowledge.
It’s important that the aforementioned members of an athlete’s coaching and care team (as well as strength coaches and doctors) understand the importance of sports nutrition. but also stay within their scope of practice and work with sports dietitians to provide accurate information and advice to athletes. Evaluation with a sports RD can help athletes develop a plan to meet energy and essential nutrient needs during different training periods, helping reduce the risk of injury.
4. Educate and advise on supplement use and safety
The supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA in the same way foods are. Supplement companies can make statements on their products, social media, and websites without any scientific proof of their claims. There’s also no assurance that the supplement you purchase and ingest is safe, pure, or potent, nevermind effective. Scary, huh? Especially when you may have random drug tests as an elite high school athlete or NCAA, NJCAA, or NAIA college athlete.
A sports dietitian can help you navigate the supplement world so you can make an educated choice about which are best for you (if any at all). This can both save you money and prevent a positive drug test for collegiate athletes.
5. Offer hydration education and a personalized protocol
The importance of sports nutrition extends beyond what you eat; hydration is a critical piece of sports nutrition that is often overlooked and misunderstood. Poor hydration is not only a risk for poor performance as an athlete and in the classroom, but as mentioned earlier can increase injury risk. On top of that, severe hydration is a major health risk impacting your heart.
Sports dietitians educate you on what’s involved with hydration other than just water and electrolytes and help walk you through a detailed hydration assessment to develop a more personalized hydration protocol. If you’re interested in learning more on your own, check out our free hydration e-guide or our hydration e-book that provides even more in depth education and allows you to work through a hydration assessment on your own.
6. Help find what’s best for you to eat before, during, and after training
If you’re stuck in a rut of consuming the same foods day after day, are fearful of eating before practice or competition due to past stomach upset, or haven’t learned what’s best for nutrients and timing after training, a sports dietitian can be a huge asset.
RD’s can provide resources for snack ideas throughout the day, easy meal ideas and new recipes that meet your fueling needs, and product suggestions for on-the-go or during training. They can also help you navigate your campus dining options or high school cafeteria, providing suggestions for foods that work for your lifestyle, schedule, and food preferences.
7. Enhance your cooking & meal prepping skills
While all dietitians may not be chefs, they are equipped with foodservice skills and can teach you the basics of cooking, meal prepping, and food safety. Don’t think we expect you to be chefs either. We have ideas for meals you can throw together in your dorm, with just pantry or freezer staples in your apartment, or even options in your hotel room while traveling if you didn’t like the meal that was served by your team. And, when you spend a lot of time on-the-go, learning about food safety, a critical topic that’s often overlooked, can save you from getting sick and harming your training.
8. Support you in navigating special diets
Many individuals choose vegan or vegetarian diets for ethical reasons, or just based on what other athletes are doing. But, without proper knowledge and planning, vegan and vegetarian diets can be lacking in specific nutrients that then may affect your energy, performance, and health. Oftentimes, athletes report feeling better on these eating patterns initially, but overtime nutrient stores can drop to leave you feeling depleted and with poor recovery. The same goes for those following gluten-free or dairy-free eating patterns for medical reasons, for example.
By educating you on certain nutrients and suggesting food and product swaps, sports dietitians help you develop an eating plan that fits your food preferences, but also ensures you are providing your body the nutrients it needs. Working with a dietitian is also a safe way to transition from one dietary pattern to another.
9. Ensure you have a positive and healthy relationship around food & eating
While fueling properly and reaching exercise goals is important, ensuring you have a healthy relationship with food is vital for short and long-term mental health. If you feel anxious, stressed or even obsessive over your food choices, a dietitian can help you work through these feelings and develop a healthier relationship with food. Disordered eating and eating disorders are more common in athletes than non-athletes, and males are no exception. When working with sports dietitians, whether 1-1 or in a team setting, athletes are screened for disordered eating and eating disorders so that these issues can be addressed before performance and health suffer.
10. Guide you as THE expert in food and nutrition for performance
The term “nutritionist” has no legal definition. Practically anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”, “nutrition coach”, or “nutrition expert”, without ever having completed coursework or continuing education on the topic. Unfortunately, even those who claim they have nutrition certifications may have just read a book and answered a few basic questions online.
When nutrition can provide the edge that takes your performance to the next level, you don’t want to trust those who don’t have the proper credentials, no matter what they’re promising on their website or social media accounts. Just like you wouldn’t see someone who enjoys Grey’s Anatomy in lieu of your medical doctor, you don’t want to see someone who is just excited about how nutrition enhanced their performance instead of a sports dietitian.
On top of the extensive training dietitians go through, they also need to maintain their credentials through the Commission on Dietetic Registration by completing a minimum of 75 continuing education hours every certification cycle on topics related to their specific areas of work. This ensures that sports dietitians are up-to-date on the latest developments in nutrition for athletic performance.
Those who are Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) are board certified. They have been a dietitian for at least 2 years, completed at least 1500 hours of sports nutrition related work, and passed a challenging board exam, which they must take again every 5 years. Sports dietitians and CSSD’s understand their scope and are eager to work with sports medicine physicians, strength and conditioning coaches (CSCS), athletic trainers, physical therapists, psychologists, personal trainers and coaches to ensure student athletes are obtaining consistent and credible information and support to be successful.
Ready to get started?
Now that you understand the importance of sports nutrition, you’ve likely realized that working with a professional can benefit your athletic performance and recovery. If you’re a college athlete or team, check to see if your school has a sports dietitian on staff that may be working more closely with other teams, but has time to meet with you. Do note though, that dietitians in food service or your school’s wellness center specialize in those areas of nutrition and may not have the knowledge of the fueling recommendations for athletes, the demands of your schedule, or the psychology of sport.
If you’re a high school athlete or team, local athletic trainers and strength and conditioning specialists may already know and work with local sports dietitians. If you prefer to meet in person, inquire about their background and services.
Want to work with some of our experts here at Student Athlete Nutrition? We have some downloadable content and webinars that you can work through at your own pace. For more individualized 1-1 or team support, our sports dietitians offer a variety of services to educate student athletes, the team’s coaches and staff, and parents, too!