Jennifer Brunelli only sees the Carolina Panthers’ players a few times a week, but she’s certain her presence is known even when she’s not in the building. As the team’s part time nutritionist, Brunelli splits her schedule with her private practice in Charlotte, but she hasn’t wasted any time revamping the menus and building relationships with the players since she started with the Panthers in June.
“In the past, everything was pre-made and there weren’t many options,” says Brunelli, a registered dietician. “Now they can build their own meals to meet different needs. I’ve tried to educate them and make it as easy as possible for when I’m not there.”
After each player undergoes a body composition analysis from Joe Kenn and the other strength and conditioning coaches, detailed nutritional requirements are determined based on specific on-the-field or weight goals. Brunelli sits down with each player to discuss diets, but she says she’s not the food police. “It’s about helping them understand that everything that goes into the body should serve a purpose,” she says. Luke Kuechly, Brunelli says, is a “shining example to the rookies” when it comes to fueling his body with antioxidants and key nutrients.
During this year’s training camp, Brunelli helped to set up “action stations” where athletes can customize their plate with different proteins, vegetables and carbohydrate sources. The Panthers enjoy taco, pasta or stir-fry stations, with choices of both a lean and higher calorie protein, four to six assorted grilled vegetables, two to three sauces and both simple carbohydrates, such as white pasta or rice, and whole grain offerings, such as quinoa. In the morning for breakfast there’s a similar setup for omelets and eggs, and for something a bit sweeter, Brunelli says one of the team’s favorites is the crepe station, where players can go savory or sweet with the thin, French-style pancakes. Executive chef Aidan Waite has worked with the Panthers for 19 years, but adapted to Brunelli’s nutritional guidelines by developing menus for the stadium that are consistent with her message during camp.
The Panthers’ menu also always contains at least one fish offering to meet quarterback Cam Newton’s pescatarian diet needs, but Brunelli says some of his teammates are catching on. “Other players see Cam and they wonder if they can go that way too, and a cold water fatty fish is actually going to be beneficial for them,” she says.
For Brunelli, there’s a food fix for every problem. To help the team when she's not there, Brunelli created special signs for the stations and various options, color-coding what type of benefits or purpose each food serves for the body. The newly-built smoothie bar helps her provide the players with their prescriptions for optimal performance: an individualized shake made up of greens, fruits, yogurt, milks or proteins and assembled to meet precise macronutrient needs.
Looking for energy to fuel a workout? Brunelli says to try the blueberry honey smoothie. Struggling to get your greens in? Add in a handful of kale. Want to recover after training? Blend in pineapples and fruits with antioxidants, like blueberries.
After first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin suffered a bone bruise on his left knee during camp, Brunelli recommended pineapple juice to help him recover. For players struggling with hydration or cramping, foods rich in sodium like cheese, soups and olives can help, and for those that need to lose weight, the signs also indicate low calorie options. And when a crew of Panthers' running backs found their way to the nearest Krispy Kreme after practice—and performed a song and dance to go along with it—Brunelli made a joke out of it, registered dietician-style.
With more than 90 men to support and educate on proper nutrition during training camp, Brunelli makes sure her approach is simple and smart.
“It shocks me how open they are if they truly know there will be a benefit for their performance,” she says. “We’re building the mental concept that food is fuel.”