Sports nutritionists provide athletes with dietary advice customized to specific body types, training cycles and performance goals. Athletes of all levels are becoming increasingly attuned to optimizing general wellness and nutrition. The most sought-after job opportunities for sports nutritionists are typically those in service of college, professional and Olympic athletes and teams. All dieticians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dieticians. Only a licensed dietician or licensed dietician-nutritionist can legally use the title “dietician.” Licensed nutritionists are also certified and regulated by most states, but use of the title “nutritionist” is less regulated than “dietician.”
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The general mission of sports nutritionists is to help athletes reach goals for preparation, peak performance and recovery. They apply their expertise in balancing food, fluids and sometimes supplements to the training and competition cycle. Sports nutritionists design meal plans for specific stages, from meals before and after training sessions to meals before and after competitions. At the highest levels of competition, this can be an every-day, every-meal, year-round cycle. For youth and amateur athletes, sports nutritionists may develop less rigorous programs.
The more intense the sport, the more influential sports nutrition can be. Formal sports nutrition programs have become a nearly universal component of professional, collegiate and world-class athletics. Amateur and youth athletes are increasingly incorporating sports nutrition into their training programs as well. The proliferation of youth athletics and increasing availability of nutrition information on the Internet have raised the specificity and ambition in goal-setting by athletes at all ages and levels of competition.
Salary and Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job opportunities for dietitians and nutritionists to increase by 9 percent from 2008-2018 -- slightly less than the 14 percent growth projected for all occupations. The visibility of competitive sports has grown in recent decades and so has the general public’s awareness and emphasis on personal health, fitness and exercise. These priorities align directly with demand for the services of nutritionists and dieticians. Wage information reported by the BLS in May 2010 found a median U.S. salary of $53,250 for nutritionists and dieticians. The top 10 percent of practicing professionals earned salaries of more than $75,000.
Sports nutritionist careers require, at minimum, an accredited bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related academic field. Many high-level sports nutritionist job opportunities require a master's degree, membership in professional associations, and additional subject matter certifications. Academic degree programs in nutrition and health sciences are offered by numerous U.S. colleges and universities. Primary professional groups include the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionist Association.
Successful sports nutritionists are creative thinkers, able to formulate diverse programs to address the particular needs of individual athletes. They must build trust among the athletes they work with, cultivating both conceptual understanding and credibility. This calls for a very high level of subject matter expertise, but also the interpersonal and communication skills necessary for connecting with their clientele.
Professional requirements for sports nutritionists vary by location. National certification standards are regulated by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. It's not uncommon for individuals with sports backgrounds to have an edge in hiring processes for high-level sports nutritionist job opportunities. Prospective sports nutritionists should research the requirements particular to the location and standards of the jobs they intend to pursue.
Chuck Dye is a professional copywriter and award-winning journalist. His experience includes reporting and copy editing, earning awards from the Football Writers Association of America and Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. Dye holds a master's degree in communications and a bachelor's degree in journalism, both from the University of Oregon.