In the past, sports and exercise nutritionists (SEN) may have been perceived as finger-wagging food police, who had a few good recipes up their sleeves and could let you know whether it was safe to eat out-of-date yoghurt! The high performance sport environment has changed and the role of sports nutrition has evolved. Athletes are looking for small margins to gain competitive advantage and nutrition has emerged as an area in which these gains can be made.
Sports and exercise nutritionists are involved in the measurement, assessment and interpretation of dietary data, body composition, hydration and physical activity assessments, and supplement use in the context of both athlete health and wellbeing, and optimising performance. Sports & exercise nutritionists are integral members of multidisciplinary athlete support teams.
However, the nutrition sphere is noisy and credence is often given to those with the loudest voice and not necessarily those with the most relevant qualification, experience and expertise. These days celebrities are often mistakenly considered the experts. A UK based joint initiative of three professions: Dieticians, Nutritionists, and Sport and Exercise Scientists is working towards a recognised accredited register of suitably qualified and experienced practitioners in sports and exercise nutrition. Although early in its advocacy for quality assurance in SEN, the register is gaining traction internationally and is becoming the quality mark in this discipline.
The Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr) is a voluntary register designed to accredit suitably qualified and experienced registrants, who have the competency to work autonomously as a Sports and Exercise Nutritionist with performance oriented athletes, as well as those participating in physical activity, sport and exercise for health. The register is a joint initiative of three professions recognising the benefits of learning and working in an inter-disciplinary manner.
There are currently 72 registered practitioners internationally, six of whom are based in Ireland; their details can be viewed here. There are many more practitioners across the island of Ireland; many meet the professional standards and competencies for SENr accreditation but unfortunately, many do not. Now, the SENr is the most recognisable quality assurance mark for practitioners in this field. Dr Catherine Norton (PESS UL) is an SENr accredited practitioner. She is also current chair of the Sports & Exercise Nutrition Group (SENG) a voluntary interest group of the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute (INDI) for Sport & Exercise Nutrition practitioners. She is leading the SENG committee to foster alliances with the UK based SENr to encourage Irish members to register with SENr and to become accredited service providers. This will allow service users (athletes and the public) to make informed decisions on the credibility of their service providers.
There is an increasing appetite (bad pun intended!) for Irish post-graduate course in SEN; there is currently only one offered on the island and this is in Ulster. Many Irish graduates of dietetics, nutrition and sports science re-locate to the UK to up-skill in this emerging discipline. Many practitioners also travel to the UK to engage in professional development. The University of Limerick -Ireland’s Sports Campus- is very well placed to offer research–led professional development in this discipline. Staff at the Department of Physical Education & Sport Science research, publish, teach and work in applied sports settings. UL Beo is an initiative from the University of Limerick to support and develop projects in the areas of physical activity, health, lifestyle and sport. It aims to have UL recognised as a national and European leader and innovator in the practise and research of sport and physical activity. Through UL Beo, PESS staff already support a wide range of activities in high performance sport, working with a range of leading national and international coaches and athletes. SEN professional development at UL could be research-led and could afford opportunities for practitioners and students to engage with high performance athletes through problem based learning. Mentoring schemes and work placements could be easily facilitated. An additional role of the SENr is to accredit under-graduate and post-graduate courses in sports and exercise nutrition; these can be found here. In time, it is anticipated that courses or components of courses in PESS UL can be accredited, and the first step here is to have registered practitioners teaching with us in an environment that supports research and teaching in this emerging discipline.
Optimal nutrition cannot make an average athlete into an Olympian, but poor nutrition practices can certainly result in average performances at any competitive level. Common sense should dictate that you chose your sports and exercise nutritionist based on qualification, experience and expertise. The SENr and SENG can provide this quality assurance to service users.