Obesity, and Its Cure: A Growth Industry

People are getting fatter, and your wallet can follow suit. The only question is whether you invest in cookies and colas or stationary bikes and diet pills

"Does this make me look fat?" she asks you.

Don't even bother. There's no good answer to that question. You mumble something about cold-weather clothing making everybody look fat, knowing it isn't true. You tuck your shirt tails into your trousers and wonder if they were always that small, and while about it, your pants also seem a tad tight. Must have shrunk in the laundry, you reason.

David George Gordon

In fact, buttoned and zipped, you can barely breathe as the two of you sashay out to a restaurant.

"It's a celebration," you say to yourself as you peruse the menu. You're celebrating Hapoel Lower Shinroo's victory over the kiddie team of an uninhabited island in the Pacific. You aren't about to count calories on a night like this. You deliberate between the figs stuffed with goose liver cooing at you from the red wine sauce or the bacon-wrapped mushrooms in truffle oil.

Then there's the gooey dessert you can't resist, but for the sake of your "diets," the two of you heroically agree to share a single serving.

But take comfort. Your expanding waistline and proliferating chins aren't entirely your fault. Blame your genes.

Arguably, a taste for fat and sugar served homo erectus well in the struggle for survival. Theory has it that our earliest ancestors would wake after a bad night of scratching lice bites and fighting off leopards, and spend the day foraging and hunting. We expended terrific amounts of energy and our food was scarce: Our genes made sure we preferred fat and glucose over cellulose and chitin.

But that genetic tendency that served Ogg the hunter so well has made Yossi the pantry forager into a couch potato, and he isn't helped by a modern food industry that caters to our craving for fat, sugar (and salt too ).

Latter-day plague

Obesity has been called the epidemic of the 21st century and it seems to be spreading. Obesity bears a heavy price, and that doesn't just mean having to pay for two seats on planes. The costs range from social disapproval to a tendency to develop diabetes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that overweight and outright obesity and their associated health problems have become a macroeconomic problem because of direct medical costs (preventive, diagnostic, and treatment services ) and indirect costs related to morbidity and mortality. ("Morbidity costs", it explains, are lost income due to decreased productivity ).

Health economist John Cawley of Cornell University estimates that the United States government spends more than 16% of its total medical care outlay on treating obesity - $168 billion a year. The CDC thinks the cost is closer to $149 billion per year, but the point is clear.

That's just U.S. federal spending. Then there's personal spending: on the food, and on trying to get rid of the aftermath of indulgence.

Betting on the chips

In the United States, the obesity rate for adults varies from state to state but averages 26.7% overall, according to the CDC, with Colorado coming in as the most svelte (18.6% ) and Mississippi (34.4% ) the most likely to have residents who shop in the plus-size section.

In Britain too, obesity rates have been soaring (this is the nation that invented the deep-fried Mars bar ). A quarter of British adults fall into the category of clinically obese, says the Department of Health there.

While the causes of obesity remain debatable, as far as investors are concerned - obesity, the foods that cause it and ways to treat it represent a growth industry.

There is a vast range of approaches for treatment, which means a vast range of investment opportunities.

Moral issues aside, investors can look to cash in on two main avenues. Assuming that the trend of people growing fatter isn't about to reverse, investors can look for attractive companies that make the food, and/or choose investments in the companies that treat obesity.

People know perfectly well that soft drinks and junk food aren't good for them but they consume them anyway. If you believe people aren't about to stop shoving potato chips, nougat-filled peanut puffs and giant bottles of pop down their gullets, then the food industry is for you.

You may have to wait for a dip, though: Coca Cola Company stock, for instance, has been hovering at about the same level for a decade. in any case, whichever way you choose to leap, remember that you need to study the stock and consult investment advisers before making moves.

Some more interesting food for thought, so to speak, for your portfolio might be companies making products purported to be "healthier." Not only makers of organic whole-wheat carrot cakes, but perfectly ordinary breakfast cereals and other regular household goodies that they say have healthier ingredients than in the past.

Without getting into the merits of their claims, a host of companies have branded that ambition onto their packaging, such as General Mills and Kellogg's.

Note that while Coca Cola stocks have gone flat in the last decade or so, Kellogg's has been trending upward after a huge dip when the global economic crisis hit.

There are also a host of companies that supply the foodmakers with purportedly healthier alternatives, such as palm oil instead of trans fats. Unilever for one is using palm oil now in its ice cream.

Stock charts like stairmasters

Then there's the pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow: the host of companies catering to those looking to remold their physique from blimpy to Brad Pitt.

Fitness companies that run gyms, and the companies that supply the gyms, could be the ticket. Life Time Fitness, for example, supplies the full range of equipment, gym, training sessions and trainers. While their stock, has made like a treadmill and not moved much from it's initial offering, have a look at the stairmaster-esque growth in their stock chart since Americans started investing again in the last couple of years.

Then there are the companies that supply the fitness craze, such as Nike or Adidas or any company that makes decent sneakers and spends hand over fist on advertising: they could be a prospect.

And let us not forget the drug and product companies that sell anti-obesity medications, diet pills, appetite suppressants, pills intended to prevent the fat you eat from being digested and makers of absorbent pads to soak up the oils from the foods that you didn't digest, aromatic herbal teas purported to depress the appetite or have some other beneficial effect on avoirdupois, and so much more.

But, as an investor, beware of unproven medications and technologies: if tread you must, tread lightly and not with money you actually need. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently rejected Orexigen Therapeutics' diet pill, Contrave, because of concern that it could cause heart trouble. Analysts called the FDA decision "unexpected." Drug development comes with heavy risks and you ignore them at your peril.