Sunday, 30 October 2011
Training To Be A Sport Nutritionist
I often get asked by students for work experience in providing sport nutrition support to athletes and which course they should study to give them the best possible chance in a career in sport nutrition. The answer isn't that simple. The motivation to write this article comes from re-visiting a great book that I have read cover to cover (twice!) called Bad Science by Dr Ban Goldacre and after reading magazines where articles have been written by ‘nutritional therapists’ whatever those are? Ben has two chapters in his book about rogue nutritionists. I won’t go into any detail in this particularly blog, however, if you are interested in reading about these chapters I would urge you to go and read Bad Science. After speaking to Simon Whitfield who works at Routledge a few days ago, we both agreed that every undergraduate student studying a science degree should read this book as it covers majority of the foundation stones of what science is all about.
For some career pathways, getting into a profession is relatively straightforward (I did say relatively!). If you want to be a physiotherapist, then study physiotherapy for three years, if you want to be a lawyer, study law, and similarly, if you want to be a dentist then study dentistry. Unfortunately, the pathway to becoming a (successful) sport nutritionist is more complex. The most successful sport nutrition practitioners in the UK come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are dieticians with a Masters in Sport Nutrition and/or Physiology or even a PhD, others come from a medical background and quite a few have a sport science background. My mentor was (is) Mr Nigel Mitchell, registered dietician, who now works for Team Sky Professional Cycling and British Cycling. He has worked with a road racing World Champion, numerous gold medallists and several high profile professional sports men and women. He is a dietician, I am not, but we share a lot of the same philosophies and ideas.
If we look at the health model, it is more straightforward. For example, you cannot work as a nutritionist in the NHS without being a dietician. I am aware of a few exceptions, but ultimately, you cannot get a top nutrition job in the NHS if you are not a dietician. However, anyone can call themselves a ‘nutritionist’ as it’s not a protected title like dietician. You can only call yourself a dietician if you are registered with the BDA (British Dietetic Association) and have a dietetics degree. I appreciate that being a registered nutritionist and/or being on the Sport and Exercise Nutrition register is important for a practitioner working in sport nutritionist but currently it is not essential. After speaking to colleagues in the field, we agree that being registered will become necessary in future, but the title of nutritionist remains to be protected, and any cowboy/girl can refer to themselves as sport nutritionists. After reading a few articles in a popular sport nutrition magazine, it made me realize that there are lots of cowboys/girls out there providing sport nutrition support at the top level. What is even more worrying is that these so called ‘sport nutritionists’ are writing articles in magazines that have a wide readership. Some of these authors do not quote a single piece of published scientific evidence of any value, they cherry pick (there is a chapter on this in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science Book) the evidence to ‘fit’ their article, and base their views or recommendations without critically evaluating the actual peer reviewed published evidence out there which is accessible to any scientist.
So as you can see from this article, training to work as a sport nutritionist is rather complex. In my opinion, the following qualifications and requirements will become essential now that the job is becoming established in the UK. These are the essentials for working at the highest level i.e. Olympic and Professional Sports…
· Registered Nutritionist/Registered Dietician
· Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (for both nutritionists and dieticians)
· A degree in nutrition/sport science
· At least 3 years experience in working with elite athletes
· Some behaviour change training such as motivational interviewing
In summary, there is no ‘perfect’ pathway to becoming a top sport nutritionist. As long as you have covered most of the above criteria, have the desire to support athletes, have the ability to be a critical scientist and have a passion in sport nutrition there is no reason why you shouldn’t follow your desired career pathway. It should be noted however, that full-time sport nutrition jobs in the UK are rare and will probably become even sparser after London 2012. Nonetheless, sport nutrition has become a recognised part of sport science and more professional sports teams are investing money for nutrition support. If you are genuinely passionate about sport nutrition and working in nutrition, then as long as you accept that you may have to study for a few years after finishing your undergraduate degree, and may have to undertake an unpaid or low paid internship for a year, you will be a successful sport nutritionist. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts and no easy ways to becoming a good sport nutritionist.
A point that I would like to end on is that no matter what pathway you decide to take, make sure that you become an evidence-based practitioner. Don’t cherry pick the evidence to support your recommendations and don’t be scared of telling an athlete the advice they received previously is actually wrong! Around 90% of supplements that are sold aren’t effective and lack scientific evidence. Therefore don’t use supplements to ‘solve’ your athlete’s problems and use them as a short cut. Be innovative, embrace the power of the placebo, but don’t be the cowboy/girl that pushes supplements on athletes without correcting dietary practices and dietary choices first.
Although there are limited jobs in elite sport, if you really want to work in the world of elite sport nutrition, you shouldn't let any obstacles get in your way.
Good luck in pursuing your career…
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”