3 Stocks For A Balanced Approach To Battling The Obesity Epidemic

by: John McCoy

Much has been written lately about the dangers of the obesity epidemic facing our country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one third of Americans (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 are considered obese. Since 1980 alone, obesity rates among children and adolescents have almost tripled.

This dramatic rise in obesity rates over the last few decades is mostly attributed to the widespread availability of processed, high calorie junk foods that are high in sugar and saturated and trans-fats. Added to the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of most Americans today, it's easy to see why we are quickly falling behind in the "Battle of the Bulge".

Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, hypertension and certain types of cancer, some of today's leading causes of death. The nation also faces a staggering $190 billion dollars per year in obesity related healthcare costs, which for the first time, has surpassed smoking as the leading cause of healthcare related spending.

Due to these alarming numbers, and my own personal experience (which I'll talk a little more about towards the end of this article), I've chosen to highlight three companies which I believe could play key roles in providing a balanced approach to combat this dangerous and expensive obesity epidemic, and at the same time, could also provide the diligent investor with significant long term profit potential.

Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ARNA) is a San Diego, CA based biopharmaceutical company specializing in developing drugs for the treatment of obesity, hypertension and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. There has been a lot of hype surrounding Arena's obesity drug Belviq, which in June, became the first obesity drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in nearly 20 years, as well as competitor VVUS's (NASDAQ:VVUS) newly approved drug Qsymia.

While I believe both drugs will do well, Belviq's superior safety profile and Arena's distribution partnership with Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai should help make Belviq the preferred choice of prescribing physicians in the vast majority of overweight and obese patients, giving Belviq true blockbuster sales potential. Additionally, the possible future use of the drug in other applications, such as smoking cessation, along with the other drug candidates in Arena's pipeline, make a compelling case for Arena as a long term investment.

Arena's stock price, which early this year was under $2.00, hit a high of $13.50 immediately following FDA approval. It has since pulled back to $9.52 as of July 20th, and I would strongly recommend buying the stock on further pullback to around the $9.00 level.

Despite all of the hype around these new drugs, it is very important to remember that neither of these drugs will be "magic pills" that cause pounds to melt away overnight. These drugs should only be considered as one component of a doctor recommended weight loss treatment program that should also include dietary lifestyle change and an exercise program, which brings me to our next two companies.

Weight Watchers International (NYSE:WTW) is the world's leading provider of weight management services. Founded in 1961, this New York, NY based company offers regular support group type meetings for its one million plus members at both its company and franchise locations and online. Weight Watchers services and products are built upon proven weight management plans which consist of the latest nutritional science, exercise and behavioral tools.

Weight Watchers has successfully used celebrity spokespersons such as Jennifer Hudson, Charles Barkley, and most recently, Jessica Simpson, to promote its "Points Plus" weight loss program, and has also recently tailored its advertising to target men, a relatively untapped customer base for Weight Watchers. They also license the Weight Watcher brand name in certain categories of food and consumer products to select partner companies, such as food giants HJ Heinz (HNZ), General Mills (NYSE:GIS), Kraft Foods (KFT) and restaurant chain Applebee's.

Weight Watchers' stock was trading at $52.00 as of July 20th, having traded between a 52 week low of $46.88 and a 52 week high of $82.91. The company does have a considerable amount of debt, but with a 13.5 P/E, it would appear to be significantly undervalued compared to much smaller competitor Nutrisystem (NASDAQ:NTRI). This stock has a history of fast moves both up and down, and with the current price near the lower end of its range, investors should feel comfortable buying this stock at its current level.

Life Time Fitness (NYSE:LTM-OLD) engages in designing, building, and operating sports and athletic, professional fitness, family recreation, and spa centers. Founded in 1990, this Chanhassen, Minnesota company operates over 100 centers under the LIFE TIME FITNESS and LIFE TIME ATHLETIC brands in the United States and Canada.

The company has demonstrated tremendous growth over the last few years, having grown from 60 centers in 2007 to the current 102, with plans to open several new large format centers this year. Revenues during this time have increased from $655 million in 2007 to $1.01 billion in 2011, with net income also increasing from $68 million to $92 million over the same time period.

Share price has grown as well, and at $44.37 as of July 20th, it appears to be a bit overvalued. Shares have traded between a 52 week low of $33.17 and a 52 week high of $52.68. I would recommend waiting for a pullback closer to the lower end of that range before buying this stock.

Now for my own personal experience. Having finally giving up the smoking habit five years ago, I began to slowly pack on extra weight, and gained 25 lbs in just a few years. With a firm resolve, and thanks to WTW Points Plus and a conscious dietary shift from processed packaged foods to a healthier diet, I've lost 30 lbs in the last 6 months. On top of that, thanks to a local gym membership (not LTM, as there are no LTM centers in my state), at age 43, I'm in the best shape I've been in since my high school days - and I feel great. Believe me, if I can do it, just about anyone can.

I strongly recommend taking a closer look at these three stocks, which may provide not only the potential to fatten up the profits in your portfolio, but could also help thin down the investor, and add a few more years to your investing lifetime as well.

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

Disclaimer: Additional disclosure: I am not a registered investment advisor and do not provide specific investment advice. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Nothing in this article should be taken as a solicitation to purchase or sell securities. Before buying or selling any stock you should do your own research and reach your own conclusion. It is up to investors to make the correct decision after necessary research. Investing includes risks, including loss of principal.