Nutrition can play a central role in the success or failure of an endurance event, yet finding the answers to questions about required calorie intake, macronutrient ratios, bonking, or optimizing performance can be daunting and time-consuming. Not only is the field of nutrition highly debated and ever-changing, the designation of nutrition experts are unclear, and vary depending on where you live. How is the average athlete to know what nutrition provider to work with?
GritLink can demystify nutrition practices by connecting athletes with professionals who specialize in the unique dietary needs of endurance and adventure athletes. In this article, we explain the different professional nutrition designations and provide guidance for choosing a nutrition partner to help you perform your best.
The Role of Nutrition Providers
In the GritLink Network, Nutrition Providers are categorized into three designations: Nutrition Coach, Certified Nutritionist, and Registered Dietitian. While there is overlap between all of these, there are two main distinctions: the depth of nutrition education received, and the scope of practice within state or federal certification or license. No matter which designation a Nutrition Provider has, they all have a demonstrated knowledge of biology, chemistry, and food science and a goal of helping athletes maximize their sports performance with the foods they eat before, during, and after activities.
What is a Nutrition Coach?
Nutrition coaches help athletes with basic nutrition education, habit-change related to nutrition goals, and over- or under-fueling during training and racing. Coaches can be a great first-line of defense as well as maintenance strategists for any of these issues. Professionals with the “Nutrition Coach” designation have completed course work and an exam from a private health, fitness, or wellness organization. They have demonstrated basic knowledge about nutrition science and behavior change, as well as training in guiding athletes through an action plan to accomplish nutrition goals. Nutrition Coaches who do not have any other medical accreditations or licenses cannot practice “medical nutrition therapy,” such as the treatment of disordered eating, body dysmorphia, or the prescription of diets to support a medical condition. A good Nutrition Coach knows their boundaries, clearly states them with their clients, and has a network to refer out to (like GritLink) when clients’ needs cross their boundaries of practice.
In the GritLink Network, the credentials that fall under the umbrella of Nutrition Coaching include (but are not limited to):
- NTP – Nutritional Therapy Practitioner
- Pn1/2 – Precision Nutrition Level 1 or 2
- FNS – Fitness Nutrition Specialist
- CISSN – Certified by the International Society of Sports Nutrition
- Diploma in Sports Nutrition (IOPN) Institute of Performance Nutrition
- Diploma in Sports Nutrition (IOC) – International Olympic Committee Sports Nutrition Diploma
The GritLink Provider Credentials Dictionary provides a detailed description of these certifications and more information about their governing organizations.
Certified Nutritionists & Registered Dietitians: Medical nutrition practitioners
Medical nutrition practitioners have additional qualifications from Nutrition Coaches which enable them to engage in medical nutrition counseling and therapy. Medical nutrition practitioners have extensive education in nutrition – a Bachelors or Masters Degree in Human Nutrition from an accredited university – and a state or federal license or certification to practice nutrition. Their license or certification (depending on the state) allows them to accept health insurance and treat medical conditions with nutrition therapy. In the GritLink Network, the designations for medical nutrition practitioners are:
- Certified Nutritionist (CN): In Washington State, anyone who uses the “Certified Nutritionist” designation has a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition and must file with the state for a certification to practice nutrition.
- Registered Dietitian (RD): A Registered Dietitian has completed either a Bachelors or Masters degree in Human Nutrition, a 1-year (1200 hours) accredited dietetic internship, and has passed a national exam that enables them to work as an RD nationwide. Depending on what state the dietitian works in, they will be either licensed or certified.
- Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN): In recent years, the RD designation has included RDN. For the purposes of deciphering the difference between those in the nutrition field, RD and RDN are identical designations with the same credentials.
- Certified Dietitian (CD) is a state designation that indicates an RD is certified with the state (in addition to their federal designation).
Without the CN/RD/RDN/CD accreditations, a medical provider may still practice nutrition and provide nutrition counseling. For example, in WA State, the following credentialed healthcare providers may perform nutritional counseling: MD (Medical Doctor), DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), ARNP (Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner), ND (Naturopathic Doctor), and DC (Doctor of Chiropractic). Some of these medical professionals may complete additional nutrition education in order to inform the overall picture of their patients’ health, but they are not required to do so in order to practice nutrition.
What about the field of Sports Nutrition?
Good question! Medical nutrition practitioners receive base level training in nutrition for athletes, but can also specialize in Sports Nutrition with the credentialing agency, the Commission on Dietetics Registration, by getting an additional certification, which may include:
- Board Certification in Sports Nutrition, or
- SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition) certification.
Choosing Your Nutrition Provider
When deciding on a Nutrition Provider in the GritLink Network, ask yourself these questions:
- What is your end goal?
- How important is your goal in relation to your life and training? In other words, how much time, money, and brain bandwidth are you willing to spend to reach your goal?
- How flexible can your lifestyle be in order to accommodate your goal?
- What are your personal preferences and beliefs when working with providers? For example, do you prefer action plans and communication, or are you someone who likes to see the data?
|Reasons to see a nutrition expert||Nutrition Coach||CN/RD/RDN/CD|
|Lose weight / Gain weight||yes||yes|
|Define a racing/training fueling strategy||yes||yes|
|Improve racing/training performance||yes||yes|
|Training, conditioning, and recovery adaptations||yes||yes|
|Education about healthy eating||yes||yes|
|Measure and manage your body composition||yes||yes|
|Analyze your genetics and impact of nutrition||yes, if specialist|
|Measure and manage vitamin and mineral deficiencies||yes|
|Nutritional optimization to support a medical condition (GI distress, thyroid, diabetes, etc.)||yes|
Thank you to the following nutrition providers in the GritLink Provider Network for their contribution to this article:
- Dr. Geoff Lecovin, MS., DC., ND., L.Ac. CSCS., CISSN, Dipl. Sports Nutrition (IOC) from Northwest Integrative Medicine
- Aimee Gallo, CN from Vibrance Nutrition and Fitness
- Bob Summerford, RD, CD from Crave Health
- Bryan Carroll, cFMP, NTP, Movement Specialist, FAFS from Summit for Wellness
- WA DOH State Definitions and laws regarding nutrition
- Programs that offer high-quality sports nutrition education and coaching certifications are discussed in this article.