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  • Writer's pictureHolly Heartz

4 Things You Should Know About The Expertise of Sports Dietitians and How They Help Athletes Excel

Updated: Jan 17

Adequate nutrition and physical training are essential for optimal sports performance. Many nutrition resources are available for equestrian athletes however; the information tends to be general and offers little practical advice. As well, not all information is beneficial or accurate. Some can be damaging to your performance.

Information and advice may come from coaches, trainers, doctors, the internet, or nutritionists (which doesn’t mean they’re registered dietitians). The best source of information for athletes is from a sports dietitian. Here are four reasons why.

1 · Sports nutrition is not an entry-level position

While registered dietitians are experts in food and nutrition it is the sports dietitian who are experts in relating how food and nutrition benefits the athlete. The sports dietitian spends many years learning and paying their dues by working in various clinical settings such as a hospital or medical clinics.

This experience is hugely beneficial and adds to the sports dietitians’ competence in medical nutrition therapy as many athletes need to integrate managed diets for certain diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, and food allergies/intolerances along with diet for sport. Furthermore, sports dietitians need special knowledge and skills to work with athletes who engage in disordered eating practices.

To further the dietitians’ competence in sports nutrition, many are mentored by seasoned sports dietitians or they gain further education with master or doctoral degrees.

Highly competitive athletes seek nutrition counseling from experienced professionals who have built up an arsenal of knowledge based on tried-and-true practices.

2 · Athletes know basic nutrition – but there’s more to know

Most athletes, especially upper-level athletes, have a fair bit of nutrition knowledge (Unfortunately, this is not as evident in equestrian sports). They’ve been taught about calories, carbs, protein, and fat. They tend to know how to read food labels and have a good concept of which foods are healthy.

However, performance-driven clients look for more than a rudimentary lesson in nutrition. They need to know how to translate this information into real life. What are the best nutritional practices to fuel their bodies and what can they eat to get the needed nutrients to maximize performance?

Nutrition as a science is a complex discipline and athletes are complex clients. With athletes, it’s not just about calories or eating healthy foods. To see results athletes need to eat the right amount of food required by their body in the right balance and at the right times.

To know the amount of food an athlete needs, the sports dietitian will assess dietary intake with the training regime. To solve an athlete’s performance problems clues within their energy balance provide solutions as to why they are not reaching their goals.

3 · Sports Dietitians Know How To Use Food To Meet The Equestrians Goal

Athletes may train for competition or simply for enjoyment. How each athlete reaches their training goals through nutrition is unique. Some want structure…meal plans, recipes, or even grocery lists. Others want simple guidelines and tweaks to their current meal plans. Both can work wonders in helping an athlete make the changes needed for successful sports performance.

Why Equestrians See the Sports Dietitian

The sports dietitian is integral to an athlete's training, whether you're at the amateur or professional level. The reasons for your visit are individual and specific. Some equestrians may be focused on reducing body fat, gaining muscle, or both, while others may be working on injury recovery. Still others may have special diets to manage such as gluten-free or dairy-free. All of this must be taken into account in meeting performance goals.

There are challenges in sports nutrition one of which are issues around timing during competition and fuel availability. The right fuel plays a dramatic part in your performance and overall success. Discussion about pre-fuel needs and fuel between events will ensure you perform to your best. During your consultation, food lists of your preferred foods and beverages will be generated to help.

The sports dietitian will make sure you’re getting protein, carbs, fats, and immune-boosting foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. We investigate nutrient timing and recovery nutrition as well as what works best for the athlete as an individual using their favorite foods.

Follow-up After The Initial Session Is Critical

Follow-up allows the sports dietitian to assess how the nutrition plan devised during the initial consult is working for the athlete. This may involve weekly check-ins for those wishing close monitoring, answering questions that arise, some send me their food records to ensure they’re on the right track, and others may wish to be seen at three or four weeks from the initial session. Sometimes a one-time follow-up is all that is needed. It all depends on the goal of the athlete and to ensure chosen strategies are working. If initial strategies are not working, an alternate plan is designed.

Athletes Are Busy And Office Visits Aren’t Always Possible. If an office visit is not possible, I will meet with you online or at your chosen location. During home visits, I can see what you have in your fridge and cupboards and offer advice on what foods to eat less, eliminate, or include more of in your diet. I’ve reviewed menus from restaurants that clients frequent so they can make healthier choices while eating out. Sometimes, while they’re at the restaurant, they’ll text me a photo of their meal and ask me questions in preparation for our next meeting.

Nutrition goes beyond food. It involves the psychology of eating and health. Many athletes develop issues related to food, such as work situations or family that sabotage their health and the perfect eating plan. Some struggle with emotional eating or eating disorders, such as binge eating. A sports dietitian can help you with these issues.

4 · Do You Know Your Nutritionist

Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and charge clients for services. There are even nutrition training programs from privately owned schools; however the title “Nutritionist” doesn’t indicate the person is a regulated health professional. Before hiring someone, ask about their education and credentials. For example, the letters RD (registered dietitian) behind their name means the person has earned a bachelor’s degree and completed a supervised internship, passed a national credentialing examination and completed ongoing continuing education. A board-certified sport dietitian has completed additional hours of training and has written and passed a board exam. Sports Dietitians have the credentials CSSD (board certified in sports dietetics) behind their name.

If the person you want to hire isn’t an RD, ask about their credentials. Where they trained, what it is in, how long did it take to complete, and what type of course work did it include? Consider a comparable scenario as it would apply to your horse…would you want a “veterinarian” to assess your horse who wasn’t thoroughly credentialed? Credentialing ensures the proper training to make sure your health isn’t compromised.

Your coach or trainer may provide nutrition information. While they may try to keep up with the latest in nutrition education it usually falls short. After all, their focus is on coaching not nutrition. Not everyone can be a nutrition expert. It is unrealistic to believe they can stay up to date with the latest research and to have a firm understanding of nutrition science. Registered Dietitians work with nutrition daily…reading the latest research, reviewing products, etc.

Insurance coverage

Many health plans cover the cost of RD services. Check your plan. You may be eligible for reimbursement after you pay. But there is likely a dollar limit.

Final Words

There are many ways a sports dietitian can benefit the equestrian athlete. You don’t have a performance goal in mind? How about just trying to figure out if you have a healthy diet? Yep, we can do that too. Confused about the hordes of mixed messages in the media? We can help you sort through the products so you don’t waste a lot of money purchasing products that won’t make any difference to your health or performance.

You can find a sports dietitian in Canada or the USA at


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