After enrolling in a nutritional program for kids, Brown learned things about her favorite snacks that horrified her — like how much fat is loaded into a bag of chips. Gone are the days when she'd come home from school and park in front of the computer. She's joined a soccer team and gets out as often as she can.
The makeover comes courtesy of KidPower, a free program offered by Capital District Physicians Health Plan, a health insurer covering upstate New York and Vermont. The program is built around a kid-friendly fitness workbook, food charts and workshops covering everything from rock climbing to how to pack a healthy lunch.
One class, aimed at children ages 5 to 8, teaches the basics of how to read a food label.
The KidPower program is part of a growing national trend steering kids away from greasy fast foods and toward the fruit bowl.
Insurers have long encouraged adults to get in shape by offering discounts and rebates for gym memberships and weight loss programs, but now the spotlight is shifting as statistics about childhood obesity set off alarm bells nationwide.
Obesity-related illnesses represented just 2 percent of spending by health insurers in 1987; that figure rose to 11.6 percent by 2002, according to a study published in the policy journal Health Affairs.
Some 15 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are estimated to be obese, and 30 percent are believed to be overweight.
That could end up costing insurers big: Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.
But when it came to getting her kids in shape, she struggled with how to approach the sensitive topic without using ego-bruising words like "diet."
As they continued eating junk food and packing on the pounds, she worried about the health problems obesity had caused in her family.
KidPower gave her a way to talk about health with her children in a positive way, LeBlanc said.
She highlighted sections of the workbook that explained how different nutrients pass through the body, and the impact they had on overall health.
The healthy foods magnet — which listed "red light" foods like ice cream and "green light" foods like leafy vegetables — went up on the microwave. Swimming started becoming a daily activity.
Her 10-year-old daughter, teased for being chubby since kindergarten, was especially excited to embrace the new lifestyle. When deciding where to go for dinner these days, LeBlanc said it's the kids who suggest restaurants with healthy choices, complaining that the fast food joints are too greasy.
"Now my daughter brings string beans to school for a snack," LeBlanc said.
The LeBlancs are among the hundreds of children strapping on pedometers and plunging into KidPower.
A year after it was launched, 546 children are now enrolled in the program; 136 of them are between the ages of 5 and 8, and 355 are between 8 and 14 years old.
At America's Health Insurance Plans, an association of health insurers, 89 percent of members offer free nutritional counseling for members. The association does not track how many offer nutrition programs specifically for children, but the issue has become a focus for members with data emerging on childhood obesity, said Mohit Ghose, spokesman for AHIP.
In the past couple years, insurers have started fostering programs to curb childhood obesity, whether sponsoring fitness programs at schools or devising plans like KidPower, he said.
For Kate Brown, the plan is working.
The food chart magnet that helped keep her on track when she first started the program is gone from her refrigerator.
It's of no use to her these days; she's got it memorized.
By Candice Choi