Aug. 22, 2016
As a seven time All-American freestyle swimmer for South Carolina, Jennifer (Van Assen) Brunelli was accustomed to having others chasing her and trying to keep up. Now Brunelli is chasing her new passion of fueling athletes properly and keeping up with what they are eating as the team dietitian for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“Athletes are continually wanting to learn because they wouldn’t still be competing if they weren’t looking for other ways to be better,” Brunelli said. “So they are learning and listening. They may not all be implementing yet, but they hear it.
“We all know what it feels like to put your feet on the floor the day after a rough workout, and you feel like you’re going to just fall over. I work to understand what the strength staff and position coaches are doing with them and relate the nutrition piece to the recovery aspect of what’s being asked of them.”
The 34 year old is entering her third year as the team dietitian, a position the organization didn’t have before she arrived on the scene. Brunelli’s goal is to help each player maximize their performance and understand how proper nutrition can do that, while also allowing them to eat foods that taste good.
“I’m with the team two days a week, every week, all year,” Brunelli said. “They have me as a resource beyond that as well. I also have my own private practice in Charlotte where I work the rest of the week, Sports RDpro, LLC . I work with the Panthers’ food service company to approve menus for the players, and I plan their pre-workout and pre-game fueling tables. I also work as the supplement reviewer for when they have questions about safety or dosing and keeping them safe from the drug-testing aspect of it. I want to make sure they’re doing everything they can to be as safe as possible.”
Brunelli graduated from South Carolina in 2004 after double-majoring in marketing and management with a minor in journalism. While she was competing for the Gamecocks, her coaches thought she had the potential to swim faster and that’s when nutrition and athletic performance began peaking her interest.
“I had a lot of anecdotal questions about if I did certain things with my diet, what kind of effect would that have on my daily performance,” Brunelli said. “So I started messing with it myself.”
The Gamecocks now have nutritionist on staff for student-athletes, but that interest turned into a passion after graduation. She married Nicholas Brunelli, who was an American record holder in the 50 free style and world champion, and the couple was training in Arizona for Olympic trials when she decided to go back to school to get a degree in nutrition. She eventually retired from swimming in 2006 and chased her dreams out of the pool.
“I was really super passionate about what I had been exposed to in school and finally figured out what I wanted to do,” Brunelli said.
Sometimes I get to be the fun one who tells them to go out and have a steak with their wife, or I’ll say to enjoy a cookie or ice cream at camp on the training table.Jennifer Brunelli
The couple eventually moved to Charlotte so Nicholas could continue to train for his swimming career, and it was the perfect market for her as a dietitian. She earned her master’s degree and helped NC State build a program within its athletics department in addition to running her private practice. Her success in building such programs led her to the Panthers, and the NFL began to catch on to what more and more colleges were doing.
“Not all NFL teams have a sports dietitian available to the team on such a regular basis, but it is great to see it growing tremendously over the past three years,” Brunelli said. “One of the biggest pieces that helped catapult this into a more prominent role in an NCAA setting is when they did the deregulation of feeding. This means schools can provide more than just breakfast, lunch and dinner to student-athletes now. It all has to do with the increased demands that sports put on student-athletes, and that has trickled upwards to the higher levels because then you get rookies and young athletes coming in who have been exposed to so much more. They get to the pros and want to know where those resources are that they had in college.
“There is also so much more ability to access information now. They read so much online. You also see athletes competing longer into their lifespan now, so that creates a need as well. In the NFL, we motivate them all the time by reminding them how small changes can keep them in the league as long as possible.”
Brunelli noted that there is a unique challenge in trying to meet individual needs with the different positions and sizes of football players.
“Constantly things are changing in this sport,” Brunelli said. “We have position-specific parameters we are looking for. It is really dependent on the individual though. I don’t have the opportunity to create an individual plan for every single athlete with my position’s time constraints, but by the time we get through preseason and a few weeks in season, easily 50 percent of them have very specific plans, and the rest have small, specific nutrition goals they are chasing.”
Sports specific diets are an evolving science, and Brunelli said there is often a lot of `myth-busting’ going on, because what may be sound advice to a non-athlete doesn’t always equate to the needs of an athlete in his/her prime.
“The most surprising thing is how easily influenced some of these guys are by external conversations around nutrition and how it impacts the body when that conversation really has nothing to do with the level of athlete they are, compared to a normal person,” Brunelli said.
The Panthers have won three straight division championships since Brunelli has been on board, and while she is not taking credit for their success, she is thankful that the organization has made a commitment to it with “buy-in” at the management and player levels.
“I am in a very unique environment with players like Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, and Thomas Davis,” Brunelli said. “This crowd has a lot of leaders. I’ve even said to them sometimes that they’re a little too healthy. They look at me like I’m a crazy. Sometimes I get to be the fun one who tells them to go out and have a steak with their wife, or I’ll say to enjoy a cookie or ice cream at camp on the training table, after they have a great meal. Live it up!”
Gone are the training days when food might be cooked in the morning and left on warming trays for the entire afternoon for the team to eat.
“We did not have a kitchen at the stadium when I got there,” Brunelli said. “Now we have a kitchen and food service staff. The team invested a huge amount of money for a players-specific kitchen where our food service staff can cook right on the spot. If Cam Newton comes in and wants a piece of salmon, they can turn around and put it on the grill so it’s made in six minutes. My environment is definitely different than most.”
That doesn’t mean the players don’t still love certain types of food that are usually frowned upon, so there are certainly times when the players “cheat” on their diets.
“Of course they do,” Brunelli laughed. “If we do everything the right way for them in our environments, then when they want to go out, with the very limited time they get with their families and their spouses or friends, then they can go out and not feel super hesitant in those environments because we’ve created a good balance for them.”
At the end of the day, Brunelli is there to share information and the players can decide to take it or leave it.
“It’s never been my personality to force things on people because if they don’t own it, then they’re not going to do it consistently and they’re not going to feel the difference,” Brunelli said. “The bottom the line is when you get to a certain level, you start gaining that confidence where you know what you need to do for your body. Sometimes it just takes a little plugging away in sharing information or when something goes wrong in a game in terms of energy management or cramping or just feeling sluggish, and if they can tie that back to a lack of fuel in some way, then they come asking instead of me pushing.”