With fad diets, supplement companies and celebrity trainers providing different opinions on what constitutes “healthy eating,” it’s sometimes difficult for athletes to make confident nutrition decisions. Working with a registered dietitian, though, can help athletes sift through the confusion.
A registered dietician holds a degree in nutrition, completed an internship and is licensed with the state. They also keep continuing education hours throughout the year to stay up to date on the latest research.
It is important to find a dietician who specializes in sports nutrition, says Monique Ryan, a sports nutritionist and author of “Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.”
“Find someone who has actual qualifications and a certification in Sports Dietetics,” Ryan says. “Nutritionists specialize just like physicians specialize and you definitely want someone that has that unique experience.”
A sports nutritionist needs to understand that an athlete’s life involves different training cycles that all require different nutrition, Ryan says.
“I often work with athletes through the entire season and adjust their program as we go through different cycles,” Ryan says. “I do plans for training, pre-competition and race day itself, so I really take people through the whole gambit.”
This kind of specialized attention is what one can expect from a good sports nutritionist says Amy Baltes, a Chicago-area registered sports dietician.
“The majority of what I do is one-on-one counseling,” Baltes says. “We go through the goals or objectives and then we create a plan that works best for them. I also do cooking demos, take people through grocery stores and do in-home cooking lessons.”
Tim Glinski, 28, is a triathlete who always had “work with a nutritionist” on his list of things he would do in his perfect training scenario, alongside “upgrade his bike” and “get weekly massages.” When he saw the results his fellow athletes who visited nutritionists had, he decided to give Baltes a visit.
“The best and worst part of going to a nutritionist is that you realize all of the stuff that you are doing that was dumb,” Glinski says. “You thought you were eating healthy, but it just turns out that you have been lying to yourself for so long.”
Baltes assessed Glinski’s diet and fitness goals and created a plan specifically for him. She set general nutrition goals, not unlike the goals an athlete might set in his or her training, and got rid of the vitamins and protein shakes in his diet, instead focusing on whole foods for fuel.
“I really like that she had different goals to hit, like now I have to eat seven to 10 servings of vegetables a day compared to my one or maybe two previously,” Glinski says. “And now I don’t eat anything with certain ingredients like hydrogenated oils and modified cornstarch.”
Glinski says he has noticed a difference since he began working with Baltes.
“I feel a lot better and I haven’t gotten sick since I started working with Amy,” he says, “and I’m now confident in my nutrition. I don’t have to devote an hour a week to looking up new stuff, and I have that resource that I can always go to in order to keep improving.”
For some athletes, proper nutrition is an issue of quantity rather than quality.
“People don’t realize how much to eat for the training they are actually doing,” Ryan says. “They might be worried about losing body fat, and I can incorporate that into the sessions, but they might not eat enough for increased training and recovery.”
If an athlete eats even a few hundred calories below his or her daily requirement for an extended period time, it can result in poor recovery and eventually lead to imbalanced hormones, Ryan says. Studies done on female athletes eating at a deficit have shown low estrogen levels which can halt the development of good bone mass or actually decrease bone mass, as well as cause irregular or missed periods. Similar studies have not yet been conducted on male athletes, but it is possible that they also suffer similar negative effects.
A dietitian can also help athletes stay active even when a doctor may have recommended spending time on the sidelines due to digestive trouble.
Mary Bradbury, a highly accomplished triathlete and coach and a several-time qualifier for the World Triathlon Championships, began having stomach issues later in her career.
“In my twenties I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted, and then in my late thirties, usually during my run, my stomach would just start to get really upset,” Bradbury says. “It was usually after a race and for two or three years I just let it go.”
Eventually the pain and upset stomach worsened and began to affect Bradbury’s race performance. Her doctor diagnosed her with ischemic colitis, a condition causing inflammation in the large intestine.
“I had an old school doctor, so he is very cautious and conservative,” Bradbury says. “He had me tearing up for a few months, saying he wanted me to train less.”
Frustrated, Bradbury turned to Baltes. Baltes used an elimination diet, which consisted of dropping all possible trigger foods from Bradbury’s diet and added them back in one by one.
“It actually turned out to be dairy products. If I had dairy within 24 hours of running that was the cause,” Bradbury says. “I ate a lot of yogurt, a lot of cottage cheese and cereal four times a week, but if I didn’t eat it within 24 hours of a run I would be fine.”
Bradbury is now training and coaching with no problems and stresses the difference solid nutrition can make to her clients.
“You spend all this money on equipment but if you don’t have the engine to go with it it’s kind of pointless,” Bradbury says. “You have to take care of the engine first and then everything else comes after that.”