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What does a Sports Dietitian do?

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

When I tell people I'm a dietitian I usually hear something like...


"Oh lots of people need your help in this town... they love BBQ"

"Can you put me on a diet?"

"Oh yeah, my girlfriend is a nutritionist too. She posts, like, a bunch of stuff on Instagram and does fitness and stuff"

Complete honesty...

I've had all three of those responses in the last two weeks.


Also complete honesty...

I feel like none of it encapsulates what I do.


Its harmless small talk, so I never get into what I actually do. I find myself responding with a simple "yeah" and a sweet smile to these comments.


But today... I'm getting into it!


I'm very passionate about what I do and its very different than the experiences and specialties of other dietitians or health specialists.


Before diving in, let me be clear that all people who work in the health, wellness, and fitness field are important! We all have important jobs to do from motivating clients, educating clients, and monitoring clients. I am not trying to stand out as "better than" or "more important than" others... I'm just trying to differentiate. Because the clients I work with are specific to my skill set as a sports dietitian, whereas other clients will benefit from a health coach, others from a holistic nutritionist, and still others from a personal trainer. In fact, I turn down a lot of potential clients who are looking to eat healthier or lose weight, not because I don't care about their health and wellness, but because other professionals are better suited for their needs than I am. So there is no comparison... just differentiation.


So to reiterate... I am a sports dietitian.


Now, already, I'm afraid that when I said "sports dietitian" you heard "someone who likes food and fitness."


But no, that's not what I said ;)


A few pics in my various roles as a Sports RD: Educating D1 Golf players during their off season, on the sidelines of D1 Football pre-season camp actively fueling and hydrating, supporting volleyball players with recovery on the court, and consulting with military special operations for optimal performance.

Lets start with the profession of DIETITIAN:

A Registered Dietitian (RD) is a licensed medical professional.

As an RD, I work side by side with, and for, medical professionals including physicians, registered nurses, pediatricians, physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, and psychologists.

I took 6 years of formal education to obtain a Bachelor of SCIENCE and Masters of SCIENCE through courses including physiology, anatomy, cardio respiratory pulmonary, biology, microbiology, organic chemistry, medical nutrition therapy. My license requires continuing education every few years to maintain these credentials. So a Registered Dietitian is very much a medical profession focusing on the human body ....not just a field about how many calories are in a carrot.


An example of the extent to which I understand the human body....

In my career as an RD, I once read lab values on a patient that indicated cancer...and a few days later, he was diagnosed. I once heard all the signs and symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes, made a referral to an endocrinologist... and a few weeks later, he was diagnosed. I have many times helped people lessen their physical pains by referencing a few exercises and stretches enough to narrow down their problem and get them to a physical therapist. So ... can I treat somebody's cancer? No. Can I prescribe the right medication for Type 1 Diabetes? No. Can I heal somebody's physical pain? No. But I have a general understanding of it all enough to integrate with these medical fields, notice red flags, and get clients to the help they need.


I point this out because its important for your health care provider to have a general understanding of every medical field in order to refer you to a specialist if needed. I urge you to make sure your source for health information is indeed, a medical professional, not just a "fit-stagram" model or recipe curator.


Okay moving on to SPORTS:

Sports are organized activities of physical exertion and skill that involve an individual or team competing against each other. And I'm focusing on the words "organized" and "competing" because that differentiates sports from fitness. Yes, you can be competitive with yourself, try to better yourself, push yourself harder in the gym etc.... but the emphasis on a game, a match, a race... essentially, a display between top athletes or teams to see who is the best on any given day... THAT is what the spirit of competing is all about.


So as a Sports RD, I work side by side with, and for, all members of a sports team including the athletes, the coaches, the athletic trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches, and sports psychologists. My specialist certification of a CSSD (Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) was an additional year of direct training (...that's in addition to the 4 years of the BS, the 2 years of MS, and 1-year RD internship/clinical rotation). I worked full time under another CSSD in a sports environment, passing a board exam, and again, requiring specific continuing education for the sports realm to maintain these credentials. I am emphasizing the added training in a sports environment because working in athletics is a very challenging...


I'll never forget my first year as a Sports RD working at the University of Georgia. I worked with a softball player that needed to change her nutrition, per the coach's and doctors request, but her busy class and practice schedule limited her time to eat meals in the dining hall. So I asked the coach if she could push the athlete's one-on-one practice time back 15 minutes...to help her have more time to eat lunch...


That was a big "no-no."


I learned fast and hard that you don't ever ask a Division 1 SEC Coach to push practice time 15 minutes...


My point being, athletics is a hard and demanding environment. Talking and working with coaches can be challenging. The stakes are high. Understanding the demands of division 1 athletics is unique to those who experience it. So just because somebody claims to be active themselves is different compared to somebody working in the world of competitive athletics.


As a Sports RD, I tailor nutrition to match a coach's training program, a teams schedule, and an athletes' environment. Nutrition is tailored on game day or race day, and may change based on location, altitude or weather, injuries, and more.


Sometimes I also refer to myself as a PERFORMANCE dietitian.

This helps cover the individuals or groups of people who have organized physical exertion and need optimized physical performance on any given day, but perhaps not for a competition or a game. This would include the military, or tactical jobs, like police officers and firefighters. These individuals and groups need to be the absolute best at what they do, on any given day, but not for a game. Instead, it's for war, or to save lives. There also tends to be a lot more mental focus and decision-making in these jobs which involves nutrition as well.


In my career as a Performance RD for military, I tailor nutrition to the needs of a specific training phase, which may last weeks to years, and re-assess when a new phase begins. I also focus on recovery after big events. It's like seasons in sport, but less predictable. "In-season" could be a deployment, or 2-years of training to enter the career field, or it could be 2 days of a mission. And "out-of-season" could be, a few weeks of transition back stateside and family time, or 1-year in a leadership position with a desk job or over watch. Do I tell the commander that its "unhealthy" to work 16 hour days with only MREs available? No! But I tailor the nutrition before and after to make up for it, and work towards outsourcing alternative products or methods to improve nutrition for that time.


__________________________________________________________________________________________


So in summary... a Sports Dietitian is specific.


As much as I want to help everybody... being generalized often doesn't get people the help they need.


I'm not exclusive to only helping athletes....But it's what I'm best at doing.


And vice versa... people who aren't sports dietitians can still help athletes... but its not what they are best at. Perhaps it takes twice as long to find solutions to the athletes needs. Perhaps they just improve a nutritional problem, but don't solve it. Worst case scenario, they make it worse, or delay a problem from surfacing.


If an athlete has a nutrition question/need/desire/problem, their concerns will be solved much faster, and more efficiently with a sports dietitian.


"Oh lots of people need your help in this town... they love BBQ"
  • Yes more community outreach dietitians are needed to educate the public on nutrition's role in long term health. Its also important for government lobbyists to listen to health professionals and change legislation that affects things like school lunch programs and sustainable farming to change the country's health outlook. Right now, I specialize in working with athletes though, so BBQ oddly fits in to an athletes diet quite well sometimes!

"Can you put me on a diet?"

  • Of course I could! But its not likely that you need a diet. Most diets don't result in long-term health improvement and are only prescribed when people have medical conditions that require strict adherence. Instead, you may need a kitchen makeover, some new recipes, and somebody to hold you accountable to your goals like a health coach, or personal trainer.


"Oh yeah, my girlfriend is a nutritionist too. She posts, like, a bunch of stuff on Instagram and does fitness and stuff"

  • It's great that she has a passion for eating healthy and exercising! I love sharing my passion as well. Not everybody on social media is a licensed professional though which can be confusing ... what are her credentials?


Thanks for letting me share my background with you. I hope this provided you with a clearer understanding of what a Sports Dietitian such as myself does. And I hope you spread the word that athletes should refer to Sports Dietitians for their nutrition information. Two large organizations that I am a part of are:


Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietetics Association

and

Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Dietetic Practice Group


The links above go directly to their sites with downloadable sports nutrition fact sheets and infographics for your benefit! And of course, stay on my page for specific sports nutrition for RUNNERS :-D

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© 2019 by Lindsey Elizabeth Pfau MS RD CSSD LD/N