Should I See a Nutrition Professional?
With a plethora of information about nutrition available on the Internet, you might think you have all of the information you need to make informed dietary choices right at your fingertips. Unfortunately, because of the sheer volume of information, wading through what is relevant to you and what is not can be incredibly time-consuming. Not to mention some of the online information is contradictory and inaccurate. So when should you stop clicking and seek the help of a professional? And which professional should you see?
Nutritionist, Registered Dietitian, Sports Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?
Although you can earn a degree in nutrition, even a doctoral-level one, there is no specific requirements or certification to become a nutritionist. Essentially, anyone interested and well-read in nutrition can call themselves a nutritionist.
A registered dietitian (RD) has completed an undergraduate program in nutrition and a one-year clinical internship program. RDs also have passed a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). RDs must maintain their registration status through continuing education and advanced degrees or certifications in areas of specialization, such as pediatric dietitian, cardiac dietitian, sports nutritionist or certification in diabetes education.
A sports nutritionist or sports dietitian is a registered dietician who specializes in nutrition for professional or amateur athletes or those with who lead active lifestyles. The CDR offers a certification for sports nutritionists. Applicants to the program must be RDs with 1,500 hours of specialty practice experience in sports nutrition. Although certification is not mandatory, it does verify the level of experience for those who have earned the certificate. In addition, master’s-level programs are available to RDs who want to specialize in sports nutrition.
When Should I See a Registered Dietitian or Sports Nutritionist?
Those who are just beginning a fitness regimen should first see their doctor to make sure there are no underlying health issues—especially heart issues—that might prevent them from beginning to exercise.
The transition from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one can require a greater level of awareness about food intake. Beginners will want to ensure that they are fueling their bodies appropriately for their increased activity level and a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist can offer advice on necessary dietary changes to accommodate such a major lifestyle change.
Athletes who are training for an endurance event—marathon, ultra marathon, triathlon, etc.—have very specific dietary needs and a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist can pinpoint those needs and offer guidelines on how to maintain healthy caloric intake during such rigorous training. In addition to dietary issues during training, a they also can offer advice on what to eat during the endurance event itself.
According to sports nutritionist Heather Caplan says a sports nutritionist will consider the following:
- What type of event your are training for
- How you are currently eating/fueling your body
- Your current progress or challenges
- If you are experiencing any setbacks in your training
- Do you have any food considerations? (Food preferences, allergies, etc.)
- Do you have a sensitive gut? Which foods do or do not work for you?
- If you have gone on a particular type of diet and what the results were
- Your current health status and if you have any concerns
She explains that a sports nutritionist will consider your health history, training goals, food preferences, and dietary needs to create a fueling plan specifically for you. Caplan also notes that a sports nutritionist understands nutrition on a variety of levels, won’t discount the emotional needs that play a role in food choices and will consider not only your exercise habits but also will consider your overall lifestyle.
Other Reasons to Visit a Nutrition Professional
Navigating changes in your overall health also can be a reason to seek advice from a registered dietitian or a sports nutritionist. Changes can include conditions such as the following.
- You have been diagnosed with a chronic health condition, such as high cholesterol or diabetes, which can be improved by a change in diet.
- You think you have a food allergy or intolerance. Prior to eliminating foods from your diet, an RD can review your diet and symptoms and help narrow down what might be the cause.
- You are irregular. Again, an RD can review your diet for potential causes. A lack of fiber can cause constipation and adding fiber to your diet can help with diarrhea caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms.
- You have trouble digesting dairy products. As we age, the enzyme that breaks down lactose in the gastrointestinal system decreases, causing lactose intolerance, the symptoms of which include diarrhea, gas and bloating. A registered dietician can help the transition to a dairy-free diet.
- You have frequent heartburn or have been diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Heartburn and GERD symptoms can be prevented and controlled through dietary changes.
- You are prone to stress fractures. The female triad—disordered eating, menstrual irregularities and low bone mass—has been well-documented. Low bone mass can increase the risk of stress fractures, a common over-use injury. A registered dietician can ensure that athletes, particularly females, are taking in enough calories and eating the right things to ward off this condition.
How to Find a Registered Dietitian or Sports Nutritionist
Many resources are available for locating a qualified registered dietitian or sports nutritionist. Professional organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics maintain lists of qualified practitioners that can be searched by zip code.
Your doctor can also refer you to registered dietitian or sports nutritionist and many hospitals and wellness centers have registered dietitians on staff. Many large health clubs, particularly chains, often have a registered dietitian as part of their corporate staff and some even employ RDs in local outlets. Some grocery chains have registered dietitians in local stores to help shoppers consider dietary choices in a more hands-on environment. Store-employed RDs can decode food labels and help clients better navigate the store in search of healthier choices.
Whether you decide to enlist the services of a professional or not, be wary of information found online, particularly if the focus is to sell you a product or a diet. Credible information most often can be found on websites of professional societies and health care organizations.