Sports Nutrition: A Growing Field

Training & Conditioning magazine asked veteran Sports Dietitian Dave Ellis to reflect on the growth of the field of sports nutrition. As the President of the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association, Dave has some unique insights into the employment landscape for Sports Dietitians.

By Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS

Having worked nearly 30 years in sports, I reflect with pride on the number of colleagues who have gained traction on a full-time basis with teams in the collegiate, Olympic, professional, military and law enforcement ranks, and I remain actively engaged in hiring andmentoringmany of them. Looking back to the 1980s, it was coaching giants like Joe Paterno at Penn State and Tom Osborne, PhD, at the University of Nebraska who first embraced the concept of cultivating sports nutrition resources to fuel athletes and improve performance.

Back in those early days, coaches would summon registered dietitians from student health, campus dining or from the local dietetics program to lend a hand and offer their counsel, but very few of those experts specialized in athletics, yet. Then, as the profession progressed, some of the first to work full-time in athletics had to wear two hats as an ATC-RD or CSCS-RD. The common thread shared by RDs at that time was a specialization in the disciplines of cardiovascular wellness, disordered eating, or sports, and we eventually organized under the banner of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) Dietetics Practice Group, which has been the educational epicenter in this realm ever since.

During my second decade as a sports dietitian in the 1990s, critical professional developments were afoot. I was privileged to participate in three national football championships at the University of Nebraska, my alma mater, in 1994, ’95 and ’97, amidst a stretch of games when Osborne led the Huskers to a 60-3 record leading up to his retirement as an active head coach. Nebraska’s success drew the attention of many head coaches around the country who sought to emulate our consistency. And one of the factors that weighed heavily into the equation was Nebraska’s highly developed sports nutrition and body composition service team, staffed by two full-time sports dietitians, three graduate and four undergraduate student positions. With Osborne’s support the student advocacy bar had been raised and a new standard had been set for “sports nutrition services” in the major college setting.

‘When given the chance, many if not most sports dietitians will leverage the knowledge and relationships they have to save their athletic departments more than their salary and benefits cost the school. Once we establish that we can achieve that, and we will, sports dietitians will be in great demand.” –Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS

‘Food First’
It was in that spirit of “advocacy for athletes,” and properly fueling athletes for performance and rapid recovery after exercise, that the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) was established in 2009. Whether working with athletes in a collegiate, Olympic, professional, or military setting the CPSDA is bound by similar challenges. For example, we all have the same basic hurdles to clear in fueling athletes on steadily shrinking food budgets.

Moreover, we strive to place food as the primary source of nourishment and recovery while relegating dietary supplements to their prescribed “support” role. So as relentless “food first” advocates to fuel athletic performance, sports dietitian specialists are standing our ground today and seeking to elevate our role to become “Director of Sports Nutrition Support Services,” on par with directors of athletic training, or sports medicine, or strength and conditioning. Being recognized as department director, the lead sports dietitian on staff will be made accountable to athletic departments for everything ranging from feeding to food budgets, and CPSDA is helping to prepare our members to deliver on that promise. When given the chance, many if not most sports dietitians will leverage the knowledge and relationships they have to save their athletic departments more than their salary and benefits cost the school. Once we establish that we can achieve that, and we will, sports dietitians will be in great demand.

Dietary Supplements
CPSDA members must also demonstrate to employers that full-time sports dietitians on staff are the single greatest insurance policy athletic programs can buy to prevent dietary supplements from being misused or overused. Athletes are often blinded by sales pitches promised by the dietary supplement industry, and too often ignore cold hard facts. While some supplements are tested and true to form, many more are deliberately “doped” to deliver stimulants and hormones that on one hand have measurable effects, but on the other often result in a positive doping test. This problem extends beyond sports and reaches at least as far as law enforcement, where drug-testing has cost law officers their jobs. Experienced sports dietitians who comprise the three levels of “professional membership” in CPSDA routinely keep abreast of anti-doping developments and have the credibility required to persuade athletes and others to choose better foods, fewer supplements, and to rely on sports dietitians as their primary source of reliable information to find dietary supplements that are safe and certified to be free of banned substances. The NSF Certified For Sport program is the one we most often rely upon for that purpose.

CPSDA is already partnering with all the leading anti-doping agencies to identify trends we encounter daily in the trenches of athletics. Our first clue that an athlete might be taking an unethical short cut often comes by observing objective metrics like an abstract change in body composition. CPSDA professional members know how to assess body composition, can validate reasonable changes, and they can spot non-responders who allow alcohol, drugs, sleeplessness or disordered eating to compromise their ability to perform and recover. That’s just one more reason to have a sports dietitian on staff. The icing on the cake is that sports dietitians are an invaluable recruiting tool as well, both on campus and via community outreach.

Over time, sports dietitians will eventually be recognized for helping athletes minimize their use of dietary supplements and, for that matter, reduce athletes’ inclination to take performance enhancing or street drugs. Once athletes are properly counseled on how to safely plan their personal strategy–eating, exercising and properly recovering to achieve their offseason body composition goals–they invariably remain more focused on the end game and are less likely to wander into the Internet abyss of empty promises and false claims.

Shaping Into Form
Dozens of major college and professional teams have rebuilt the infrastructure of their support service systems in recent years to place sports dietitians alongside team physicians, athletic trainers and strength and conditioning specialists to protect athletes, and to protect the integrity of their athletic programs. One area of particular noteworthiness is the growth of nutrition and body composition testing being conducted now by experienced sports dietitians working with U.S. military Special Forces, which brings into focus the need for CPSDA professional members to hone those skills.

Another area of special need is developing skill sets to feed ethnically diverse populations, which all sports dietitians will need to have. To that end, more and more sports dietitians are learning the basics of what professionally trained culinary chefs learn so they can roll up their sleeves to help provide special meals at home and on the road.
CPSDA has recently partnered with the only culinary nutrition curriculum program in the U.S. (Johnson & Wales University – Providence and Denver campuses), which sets the stage for CPSDA to place culinary nutrition interns on job sites to keep costs down while improving overall quality. This very new development has opened an entirely new window of how sports dietitians work, revealing to professional sports teams like the St. Louis Cardinals that culinary chefs working in tandem with sports dietitians can help keep road-weary athletes fresher and healthier with well-timed meals served to them at optimal times of the day.

Over time, CPSDA plans to demonstrate that athletes can gain hundreds of hours of extra rest over the course of a long season, and rely less on sleep aids and stimulants, if they hire professionals to manage nutrition.

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