Games of sport are a convergence of mind and body. Athletes use their intellect to memorize complicated offensive play calls, tricky defensive sets along with opponents’ scouting reports. While important, it’s nothing unless matched with a finely tuned vessel. The body is an athlete’s true tool of the trade—unique physical traits like height, wingspan and quickness separate them from the spectators in the stands. Relentless exercise, film study and on-field practice as well as natural talent allow some athletes to rise to the highest ranks of sports. A much less discussed edge, superb diet and nutrition, can be the difference between toiling in the minors and landing on a major league roster.

Sports nutritionists help athletes optimize their bodies by studying each person individually so a diet plan and performance goals can be developed. They’re part of the health and wellness community promoting a winning lifestyle through thoughtful healthy eating. It’s a career that’s certainly not limited to the world of sports. People in all walks of life can use expertise to make smarter nutrition choices. It’s easy to say plums are better than pizzas and salads trump sandwiches. It’s harder to develop specific meal plans with caloric intake, carbohydrate and protein goals based on someone’s height, weight, age and family medical history. That “next level” is where nutritionists can use their expertise to impact someone’s life.

Fans often simplify the job of an athlete—wide receivers catch touchdowns, sluggers hit home runs—though the reality of each position is much more complex. Similarly, sports nutritionists are tasked with a varying set of responsibilities some of which, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, include:

  • Administering nutrition counseling for individuals
  • Engaging in menu development plans
  • Creating nutrition-rich food service initiatives
  • Spearheading nutrition education for teams, groups or wellness programs
  • Using nutrition to facilitate professional development

Sports nutritionists earn bachelors and master’s degrees in programs like clinical nutrition, foods and nutrition, exercise science, dietetics or public health nutrition. Nutritionists are often licensed proving they’ve completed the proper course work and supervised training to meet a state’s standards. Credible programs are accredited by an agency like Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Courses in the fundamentals of nutrition, basic anatomy and physiology, food standards and preparation principles, pharmacology along with plenty of clinical work will teach you how to assess individual needs, create nutritional programs and tie professional development goals to dietary successes. Upon graduation you’ll round out your skills with an internship, hundreds of hours of supervised training that allow you to practice and perfect what you studied in the classroom. If you’re passionate about food science, healthy lifestyle building and challenging others to enhance themselves then sports nutrition might be the career for you.

The best sports nutritionists combine knowledge of science, an analytical mind and strong interpersonal skills to better the lives of the athletes they work with. World-class athletes with poor self-control can find their way to the big show but, without disciple, can quickly eat their way out of a job. Sports nutritionists must be compassionate listeners, positive role models and inspiring speakers to convince athletes that big bags of Skittles, dozens of cupcakes and tubs of beef jerky will slow them down and, ultimately, derail once promising careers. Sound psychological reasoning and a firm-but-fair attitude with others will make you stand out in this field, especially when handling collegiate and professional athletes. It’s also a job on the upswing.

In mid-2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the median annual wage for nutritionists at nearly $57,000. Combating obesity with healthy eating in recent decades has expanded this job market creating anticipated growth over the coming decade. That positive outlook has up-and-coming nutritionists excited about their prospects in all industries including sports. A career in sports nutrition is challenging, rewarding and a fun way to earn a great living.