Managing Sports Nutrition without a Registered Dietitian

June 13, 2018

By: Lauren Link, RD, CSSD

    As the field of sports nutrition has evolved, and research shows the importance of optimized nutrition for athletic performance, more and more athletic programs have recognized the important role that a Registered Dietitian (RD) can play on the Sports Medicine/Sports Performance team. In fact, for most professional leagues and large collegiate athletic programs, it’s more common to have a sports dietitian on staff than not. Most of these individuals are specially trained to work with athletes and have additional credentials such as Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). However, for many smaller programs, creating an additional position for a sports dietitian may not be plausible at this point in time. If that is the case for your program, it’s important to understand what is appropriate in regards to providing nutrition advice and information to athletes.

For many programs, nutrition advice has long been given by coaches, athletic trainers, strength coaches, and parents. While well-intentioned, this advice is often misguided, and may fail to take many components of the athlete’s entire diet, training, and lifestyle into account. As a member of a sports medicine or performance team, it’s important to keep the well-being of your athletes at the forefront of every decision. In some cases, seemingly benign advice can actually be detrimental to performance, sometimes even health. For instance, encouraging an athlete to follow a certain diet may result in a disproportioned intake of macronutrients or may unintentionally cut out an important subset of micronutrients. Additionally, even a simple recommendation of following a high protein diet could be problematic if one hasn’t taken into account preexisting medical conditions, or medications or supplements an athlete is taking.

 It should also be taken into account that providing such advice could also be a liability. Only a Registered Dietitian (RD) is licensed to provide medical nutrition therapy. As a non-credentialed provider, you are taking on a notable risk (as is the organization you’re affiliated with) by providing nutrition recommendations that you are not licensed to provide. If your diet recommendation proved to result in health complications, or a supplement recommendation resulted in a positive drug test, you may find yourself in a sticky situation. 

    This isn’t to say that you can’t help guide your athletes nutritionally if your program doesn’t have access to an RD. It simply means you should be cognizant of whether the advice you’re providing is appropriate given your credentials. As a non-RD, the following are topics that you could feel comfortable talking to your athletes about—general healthy nutrition habits—encourage them to:

  • Refrain from skipping meals and to eat every 3-4 hours.
  • Consume a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats.
  • Eat more fruits & vegetables.
  • Hydrate purposefully – with largely water.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods & try new things.
  • Consume a carbohydrate-rich snack pre-workout.
  • Eat a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack post-workout.

On the other hand, to provide the best care to your athletes and protect yourself professionally, you should avoid giving recommendations around the following topics:

  • Removing certain foods, or groups of foods, from an athlete’s diet.
  • Specific macronutrient or calorie recommendations.
  • Any supplement recommendations.
  • Management of any nutrition-related disease state.
  • Weight gain or weight loss.
  • Addressing nutrition-related lab results.
  • Food allergies or intolerances.
  • Stress around eating, counting calories, or any disordered eating tendencies.

If you have athletes that need guidance with any of the above, it would be in their (and your) best interest to look into referring them out to a local RD in your community. Even if that individual is not regularly seeing athletes, they should be able to help manage any of the above situations, and at least get a plan in place. Helping your administration understand the importance of this practice can help begin to identify the need for an RD in your setting and may even be the first inroads to getting a part-time, and eventually full-time, Sports RD at your facility.

Related story: Creating an Unbreakable Sport Performance Team.


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