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  • Writer's pictureSteve Moser

When games are won and lost by inches, overlook sports dietitians at your peril

Updated: Sep 13, 2018

Despite the arms race of strength and conditioning in sports in recent years, many teams have yet to harness the power of a registered dietitian whose expertise can mean the difference between winning and losing. Steve Moser spoke to one such elite sports dietitian to find out how big of a difference dietetics can make.

Just a decade ago there were only 13 colleges in the US that employed full-time sports dietitians, and that number was then more than all of the professional sports in the US – combined. Much has changed since.

Fast-forward to today, and the number of full-time sports dietitians in the NCAA has increased by 738 percent. In the professional ranks, nearly half of the NFL teams have a sports dietitian on their staff, and Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement is ensuring teams have at least a consulting dietitian. Availability of the sports dietitian was a key topic at this off-season’s MLB Winter Meetings.

One of the main reasons for the change in approach to elite performance is partly educational. Sports dietetics was not widely accepted as such a robust science a decade or two ago, and many regarded it as simply advice on what food to eat and which to avoid.

However, as the New York Giants’ Director of Sports Nutrition and Assistant Strength Coach Pratik Patel, who has a Master’s of Science in addition to being a Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, explained to us, this area of expertise is not just an additional service a strength and conditioning coach might be able to provide.

Patel said, “The entire process to become a Registered Dietitian can take between 5-7 years. Even more if individuals choose to seek a Master’s Degree in a related field (which is common) or more experience in a specific field such as Sports Nutrition. This yields the most comprehensive and well-versed expert in the nutritional field that can do so much more than just telling people what to eat.”

In addition to the many years of study, registered dietitians must complete lengthy internships and do continuing education to maintain credentials and secure the much sought after qualifications as Patel explained:

“An accredited Dietetic Internship is mandated for an individual to become an RD. These internships are designated for students to achieve the required 1200 hours. Students will gain experience and become knowledgeable in a variety of different areas. Interns are taught by several different preceptors in the field, including Clinical Nutrition, which deals with specific disease states and conditions, working with lab values, learning one on one counseling strategies, and how to implement the science of nutrition within interdisciplinary teams of other performance and healthcare professionals.”

Elite dietitians are uniquely qualified, but what it all boils down to is what difference do they make to impact the team on the field – i.e. will an elite sports dietitian help us win? The short answer is that not having a sports dietitian is a surefire way to hand your opponent the advantage before the kickoff.

Dietitians do not just set menus, they stay on top of the ever-changing regulations of the anti-doping agencies of the world, monitor hydration, body composition, and interpret data from performance to ensure the athletes are being fueled properly based on the needs of their sport, or even their position within the sport. These are not only pertinent topics in on-the-field performance, but also in injury prevention and recovery.

These are all requirements that can vary based on the frequency of competition, climate, and travel, factors that are difficult for another staff member to deliver if they are not a formally educated registered dietitian.

According to Patel, “the healthiest and most prepared team – physically and mentally – is more than likely the team that will win and will be the last team standing at the end of the year. Cramping and poor play at the end of games often comes down to poor nutrition and can make differences in the win column, that is truly where you need a properly credentialed Registered Dietitian and someone who is diving deeper into the science than just making the post-practice smoothies.”

In the hyper-competitive arena of elite sport, a true interdisciplinary high performance staff will look at the body as a whole. That will include movement and conditioning with the strength coaches, the brain with a sport psychologist, data collection and interpretation with their sport scientists, rehabilitation with the physiotherapy and athletic training staff.

The fuel that motors all of those areas, through monitoring, optimizing nutrition and hydration, should be delivered by a credentialed sports dietitian.

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