Simply stated: No individual wants to be less productive than his classmate, colleague sports competitor or peer. Whether in the class, gym or on the sports field or in the corporate jungle, each one of us will require all necessary nutritional assistance to enhance physical and mental performance. In a COVID-19 world, competition will be razor-sharp with lesser opportunities and many hands and mouths more fighting to bag them.
A Sports & Performance Nutritionist (SPN) advises athletes and fitness enthusiasts in effective ways to improve health, raise mental and physical performance, control their body fat content and lean body weight. They manage macro- and micronutrients and sports supplementation. In most countries, performance and sports nutritionists need to be licensed to practice.
Globally, to earn the licence to practice, the nutritionist must complete a graduate degree program in dietetics and performance nutrition. Minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree before appearing for the licensing exam.
In India, there is anarchy in the world of Dietetics and Nutrition, to put it mildly. On the one hand, Indian Universities offer graduate and post graduate degree courses while, on the other, we have 15-day – or even shorter! – courses to which even a “10+” student can enrol. Then, there are the self-study courses with online exams – many of which offer credible knowledge.
In recent years, there have been some moves to ensure only a holder of a bachelor’s degree in nutrition can practice as a nutritionist. The Government of India has been approached in this regard but the progress has been frustratingly slow. The government conducts its Registered Dietician’s examination which is mandatory only for working in government hospitals or departments like the railways or government hospitals but not in the private sector.
According to Mumbai-based Ms Ruby Sound, reputed nutritionist and former office bearer of the Indian Dietetic Association, a qualified dietitian must hold a graduate degree (minimum three years) in Foods, Nutrition and / or Dietetics from a UGC recognised University or a full time master’s degree in Nutrition and / or Home Science and / or Dietetics with Graduation in Nutrition or Lifesciences, as approved by Indian Dietetic Association.
Adds Mumbai’s Prof Mrs Vinita Menon, one of India’s senior most sports nutritionists, the Indian law does not mention whether the term nutritionist needs accreditation prior to practice and nor does it specify academic qualifications. “The courses range from certificate courses through diploma programs to comprehensive degree and post-graduate courses in sports nutrition and sports sciences. Dieticians deal with regulation of diet according to medical conditions of the individual according to nutritional and calorific needs in rehabilitation and healthcare”. She emphasises: “After a 3-years degree course after 10 + 2 in Science in Dietetics and Nutrition and /or allied subjects, a 6-month internship as a part of the degree in the relevant industry is a must.”
These are the steps you must take to launch a meaningful career in Nutrition:
- Clear class 12th with any stream (Science with Biology is preferred).
- Pursue B.Sc. Nutrition or B.Sc. Food Technology.
- Pursue a PG Diploma in Nutrition or an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition.
- Intern for 6-months and clear the Registered Dietician entrance exam (to obtain the Registered Dietician license from the IDA).
Amplifies Ms Pooja Manoj, one of Kerala’s leading nutritionists: “There are no laws laid out for people practising Diet / Nutrition without any scientific background as there is no council for Dietitians which safeguards their status and in fact protects the interests of the consumer!” The Government, she says, is in the process of creating a paramedic council, wherein a registration after clearing the minimum desirable qualification to practice dietetics and nutrition, will be a prerequisite to professional practice.” Presently, we have the Indian Dietetic Association and all dietitians are encouraged to register with it.
Comments Nagpur-based Ms Meghana Kumare, a dietician with impressive sports nutrition experience: “Today, therefore, you will find persons with “certificates” issued at end of two-month “courses” proclaiming themselves as sports nutritionists. Consumers’ awareness is so poor that they do not even bother to check the professional credentials of the ‘nutritionist’!”
Ms Pooja Manoj lists, in no particular order, several quality sources of professional education in Dietetics & Nutrition, for example – the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, Lady Irwin College (New Delhi), SNDT Women’s University (Mumbai), Women’s Christian College (Chennai), All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Nirmala Niketan (Mumbai), and the Indian Institute of Sports Medicine, Chennai.
Clearly, a short-term course cannot give the width and depth of professional knowledge that graduate and post-graduate courses impart. Yet, there are several popular ones available, some being online and others holding classroom lectures. In the absence of statutory regulation, “any course goes”. These short courses are great for fitness professionals or even medical doctors. The knowledge of dietetics and nutrition management will help them understand the needs of their clients / patients and nudge them into sending the “consumers” to the specialized professionals.
Professional nutritionists, after doing their graduate and post-graduate courses opt for the Specialist in Sports Nutrition self-study course that the International Sports Sciences (ISSA), USA, offers. Perhaps one of the most complete distance education courses its textbook provides knowledge for only information and not for professional practice which is subject to state laws and profession al examinations. Do check out https://www.issaonline.com/
The main difference between Nutritionists and Dietitians is that Nutritionists are not held accountable by a regulatory body, so anyone can use the Nutritionist title – hence the plethora of short courses! But if you’ are looking to make a career as a Nutritionist, we recommend you gain as much educational and hands-on experience as possible through at least a degree in Dietetics. Points out Prof Vinita Menon, “mastering the fundamentals is possible only during a three year degree course.” After all, SPN is not restricted to whey proteins!
It’s best that you study the syllabus of the two courses that ISSA offers –
Specialist Fitness Nutrition – https://www.gayofitnessacademy.com/course/specialist-in-fitness-nutrition-sfn/
Specialist in Sports Nutrition – https://www.gayofitnessacademy.com/course/specialist-in-sports-nutrition-ssn/
Undoubtedly, this specialization offers wide-ranging opportunities. Apart from the sports sectors from kids to Olympian athletes, says Ms Kumare, any person who wants to improve his or her mental and physical performance is a prospective client! So, in this category you will find students wanting to score 90% and above in the high school exams, the investment banker taking investment and divestment decisions that will affect thousands of stakeholders, the intensivist working in the ICCUs in hospitals, et al!
There are some common pre-requisites to all the careers I have outlined above! I list them here.
- Passion: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I do not have to add to what Confucius said!
- Science: You need to have a liking for science subjects – biology, biochemistry etc
- Empathy: He or she must learn to understand the personality, psychology and the performance goals of the client. Every client is uniquely different.
- Patience: Avoid short-cuts! Long-term maintenance of nutrition goals is not possible through short-cut methods! Resist the temptation of adopting fad diets!
- Experience: If the nutritionist is going to counsel a marathon runner, then he or she must train to run a few kilometres weekly. “How are you going to advise a post-workout meal if you have not experienced it? From experience is born conviction.
- Knowledge: Flaunt your degree and post-grad degrees, she advises. Certificates are reasonable evidence of sound professional knowledge that has been tested through rigorous training, internship and examinations. Educate the client about your professional abilities!
- Professional edge: Sharpen your professional edge with some “horizontal” skill sets. For example, pick up a well-respected certificate or diploma in Yoga or Pilates. At any rate, the nutritionist ought to exercise and experience DOMS.
“Athlete nutrition is not just about weight loss. It is important to fuel the body optimally before, during and after exercise, as well as to stay hydrated.” A complete, fulfilling career: that is the Sports and Performance Nutritionist!