We all know that when we exercise and eat in a healthy and balanced way, we feel more ready to face our day, but we often need a helping hand to reach or health goals.

If you're fascinated by the science of how eating the right food can help us to live our best lives, and you love communicating and working with athletes, becoming a professional sports nutritionist could be an excellent career choice for you.

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What does a sports nutritionist do?

Different types of nutritionists

Some may be confused about the difference between a sports nutritionist and a general nutritionist.

There are actually many different branches of nutrition or dietetic science, from public health to diabetes to nutrition education and much more.

A general dietitian will work with average people, who are just trying to practice eating better, either in order to lose weight, because of specific dietary requirements or even just to feel better day to day.

In contrast, a specialist sports dietitian will provide diet plans for athletes based on the specific needs of their sport.

Different athletes will need different food plans to reach their peak performance, and their nutritionist will specialise their plan to suit them.

They will take into account their training and exercise regime, as well as the ideal body for the sport.

For a runner, this may mean maintaining lean muscle and building stamina. Instead, a bodybuilder will focus on building muscle.

Dietitian vs nutritionist

These are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but it's important to note that in Australia, these are two distinct roles.

We can think of 'nutritionist' as an umbrella term that covers a range of roles related to nutrition services.

This means workers who provide services related to public health nutrition, community health, policy and research and more.

It's an unregulated term, so it can refer to someone with a 3 year degree, or someone who has very limited knowledge can technically still refer to themselves as a nutritionist.

Dietitians have the qualifications to provide similar services to clients, but with a much deeper level of knowledge and study behind them.

You can only become a dietitian if you have studied in a supervised and assessed course (a bachelor, honours or masters degree) that leaves students with an expert level of knowledge.

Basically, all dietitians are nutritionists, but nutritionists that don't have specific qualifications in dietetics can't actually call themselves dietitians.

A marathon runner has specialised diet requirements
Sports nutritionists have to create specialised diet plans based on the athlete's performance needs. I Source: Quino Al- Unsplash

What will the job involve?

A sports dietitian will provide a variety of services to their clients, such as:

  • Dietary analysis: This includes thinking about what athletes eat, but also eating patterns before and after training, ensuring a variety of food and more.
  • Meal planning: A nutritionist has to provide lists of recipes their clients can prepare, and might even provide cooking classes and shopping tours to show athletes where and how to prepare their food.
  • Anthropometry: This involves taking measurements of all kinds to track the progress of clients, from skinfold testing to girth measurements, to BMI.
  • Hydration issues: Sports dietitians will analyse how the fluid needs of their client based on body and muscles sizes, as well as which fluids (e.g. sports drinks, tea, juice etc.) are most effective at different moments of the day.

Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list and one of the best aspects of sports nutritionist jobs is the variety of tasks in day to day work.

There are also opportunities to conduct scientific research, provide training and education to dietetics students and so much more.

Planning meals helps to regulate diet
Dietitians provide detailed meal plans for their clients I Source: Ella Olsson- Pexels

What are the different pathways to becoming a sports nutritionist?

Now that we've established the main roles of a sports nutritionist, let's look at the two main education pathways you can follow to become a registered sports nutritionist and start working with high-level athletes!

Pathway 1: Starting with a bachelor and gaining an accreditation

What to study at university

The first step for most will be to start a 3 or 4-year bachelor in nutrition or dietetics at university. Students looking for dietetics courses in Australia are truly spoilt for choice.

The majority of major higher education institutions in the country offer courses that are accredited by Dietitians Australia (DA), the "peak body for dietetic and nutrition professionals".

You can find a list of these courses on the DA website, at highly regarded universities like Deakin or La Trobe in VIC, the U of Sydney in NSW, Curtin U in WA, the U of Canberra in the ACT and many more.

There's also a range of course that, although they aren't registered by DA, still offer an excellent dietetics education.

In any of these courses, you will study different food sources and the macro and micronutrients they provide.

You'll gain knowledge about the science of physiology, like the nervous system and muscle tissues, as well as biochemistry, food chemistry and so much more.

In most of these courses, students will find that they can also study specialist subjects related to topics like diets for high-level athletes.

They usually also offer opportunities for hands-on experience, which can help when looking for a job later.

However, you won't be able to graduate and immediately become a professional sports nutritionist.

Biology and physiology are a big part of food science
Students will learn about how the body works and how different food can affect it I Source: Robina Weermeijer- Unsplash

Becoming a registered nutritionist

The next step is to get at least a year of career experience because you'll need it to then be able to do a specialist qualification.

Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA), is one of the most important professional bodies specialising in sports nutrition and offers the only specialist course accredited by the DA.

This 13-week online course focuses on how to take the science behind sports dietetics and convert it " into practical and meaningful interventions for athletes and coaches".

There are many subjects that aim to deepen students' knowledge of the science of food and intervention in different areas, like high-intensity sports vs endurance training.

A large part is also dedicated to sharing knowledge related to communicating with athletes, coaches and teams, the realities of planning a performance nutrition program, getting involved in the job market and more.

These are the practical communication skills that all nutritionists need to put into practice with their clients.

Once you've completed this final qualification, you're ready to start looking for work as a nutritionist with a professional athlete or sports team!

Pathway 2: Short courses

Of course, not everyone has the time, money or desire to spend years following this established pathway.

This is especially true if you're coming to the field later in life or have never worked in the field before.

Luckily, there are other options available!

Even if you're not interested in getting a formal degree, some study is essential in developing the skills you need to help clients reach peak performance.

Many education institutions offer more practical training in this field. A great example is the Australian Institute of Fitness, who offer an online Nutrition Coach course.

In courses like this, people will mostly gain knowledge about science related to healthy food and how to communicate with their clients.

Given the much shorter study time than a bachelor degree, you won't spend the same amount of time studying in science areas like physiology or chemistry.

These courses are a great option for trainers or coaches who might already be working in the fitness industry and want to gain more specialist knowledge.

For example, a personal trainer who wants to start providing diet program services to their clients could use a course like this to gain a better understanding of what healthy eating involves.

How to gain entry into the sports nutrition job market

A nutritionist can have a range of roles
Building relationships and networking is an important step in finding work in nutrition I Source: Yilmaz Akin- Unsplash

No matter which of the pathways you choose, there's still the matter of actually finding work in the field.

Given that it is such a specialised field, there may not be as many roles out there as one might think.

Many sports dietitians may have to find multiple jobs to fill out their week.

For example, while most professional AFL clubs employ a sports dietitian, it's usually only for one or two days a week.

To look for job opportunities, you can check out the DA and SDA websites and social media accounts, as they post advertisements for jobs around the country.

The most important thing is to gain experience!

During and after your studies, try to get experience through volunteer or intern roles.

These are also a great way of getting in contact with working sports dietitians and building relationships with different organisations.

This is key, given that this is a well-connected and relatively small community in Australia.

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Giulietta