Obesity: How a Big Problem Can Lead to Investment Opportunities

by: Dutch Trader

Being overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to being overweight and obesity.

Some WHO global estimates from 2008 follow:

  • 1.5 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight.
  • Of these 1.5 billion overweight adults, over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.
  • Overall, more than one in ten of the worlds adult population was obese.

In 2010, around 43 million children under five were overweight. Once considered a high-income country problem, being overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. Close to 35 million overweight children are living in developing countries and 8 million in developed countries.

Being overweight and obesity are linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight. For example, 65% of the world's population live in countries where being overweight and obesity kill more people than being underweight (this includes all high-income and most middle-income countries).

Obesity has become increasingly common throughout the world. In the United States, obesity has increased dramatically: 34% of adults are obese, and over 17% of children and adolescents are being overweight or obese. Obesity is much easier to prevent than treat. Once people gain excess weight, the body resists losing weight. For example, when people diet or reduce the number of calories they consume, the body compensates by increasing appetite and reducing the number of calories burned during rest.

Being overweight and obesity, as well as their related noncommunicable diseases, are largely preventable. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping peoples choices, making the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity the easiest choice, and therefore preventing obesity.

At the individual level, people can:

  • limit energy intake from total fats;
  • increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts;
  • limit the intake of sugars;
  • engage in regular physical activity;
  • achieve energy balance and a healthy weight.

Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, at the societal level it is important to:

  • support individuals in following the recommendations above, through sustained political commitment and the collaboration of many public and private stakeholders;
  • make regular physical activity and healthier dietary patterns affordable and easily accessible too all - especially the poorest individuals.

The food industry can play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by:

  • reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods;
  • ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers;
  • practicing responsible marketing;
  • ensuring the availability of healthy food choices and supporting regular physical activity practice in the workplace.

Several healthcare and consumer companies can benefit from an effort to combat the growing obesity problem. Revenue in obesity-related products in the area of discretionary consumer spending is expected to rise by 6.3 percent on average by 2012, reaching $482 billion. Obesity is also a fast rising problem in the Fast Growing markets as diets changes drastically and often with negative effects on health of especially Asian and Latin populations (not used to a lot of proteins, fats, sugars, etc) as they adopt a more sedentary lifestyle in the big cities.

For example according to official Chinese statistics, there are now nearly 100 million obese Chinese. As a proportion of China's population that number is still low compared to many Western countries. Unlike in Europe and North America, where weight problems are often associated with poverty, Chinese waistlines are expanding as a direct result of new-found wealth, so rising disposable income can have also some negative side effects.

Companies such as Merck & Co (NYSE:MRK), Roche (OTCQX:RHHBY), Danone (OTCQX:DANOY), Herbalife (NYSE:HLF) and Allergan (NYSE:AGN) are among several health-care and consumer products companies best positioned to profit from an effort to combat the growing obesity epidemic.

By contrast, revenue in the healthcare sector related to obesity treatments and preventative care is expected to reach only $73 billion by 2012, averaging 7.1 percent annual growth. Companies such as Nike (NYSE:NKE), Adidas (OTCQX:ADDYY) and Lululemon Athletica (NASDAQ:LULU) can benefit from this specific investment trend.

Health Care: Allergan sells a “Lap-Band” used in an increasingly popular type of obesity surgery. Merck and Roche sell drugs for diabetes, blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Food: Danone and Herbalife should benefit from a move tohealthier, more convenient foods..

Athletics: Nike and Adidas sell footwear, apparel, equipment and accessory products, Lululemon Athletica sellsyoga-inspired apparel”.

Almost all companies mentioned in this article have a growing presence in emerging markets which will be the key growth driver for the coming years. One company-- Lululemon Athletica-- is laying the groundwork for international expansion.

Investors who do more research on this specific investment topic will find even more companies that fit in the obesity investment framework.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.