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America's Hidden Obesity Epidemic

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The United States is the fattest country in the world -- and I'm not talking about our wallets, folks! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disheartening 35.7% of the population is considered obese. That's considerably higher than the next closest countries, Mexico, New Zealand, and Australia, which have obesity rates ranging between 25% and 30%.

A huge, but largely preventable, problem
The sad part about obesity is that it's preventable more often than not. Medical costs associated with obesity were estimated by the CDC in 2008 at $147 billion annually, with obese people, on average, registering a cost premium of $1,429 as compared to someone of average weight. Obesity also brings on higher risks of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers.

And it isn't just that being overweight has been shown to be poor for your long-term health; it's that society has surrounded itself in a cocoon that frowns upon obesity from the magazines we read, to the commercials we watch, and the movies we see on the big screen. The push toward creating a healthier lifestyle has begun in our homes with the way we eat, exercise, and live our lives. Unfortunately, as the following U.S. obesity map shows, it's not been nearly enough.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Obesity has also been a big research driver in the pharmaceutical sector as well where 13 years went by since the last chronic weight management drug was approved. That changed last year with the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of VIVUS' (NASDAQ: VVUS  ) Qsymia and Arena Pharmaceuticals'  (NASDAQ: ARNA  ) Belviq for the treatment of chronic weight management. Neither drug is a miracle cure, but an average weight loss of around 6% to 8% can be expected on either pill over a year's time based on late-stage clinical trial results. 

America's hidden obesity epidemic
However, an even scarier obesity trend is likely rearing its head in another part of your household and you aren't even aware of it. Close to one half of all families are oblivious to its existence, but contribute to it anyway. What I'm talking about is the rampant pet obesity epidemic in this country!

According to the latest study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention conducted in 2012 and released last month, a staggering 55% of household pets (52% of dogs and 58% of cats) are considered either overweight or obese. Furthermore, in APOP's study, 45% of pet owners incorrectly identified their pet as being "normal weight" when the veterinarian identified the pet as either "overweight" or "obese." That equates to just shy of 80 million animals in this country that are suffering from the same types of ailments as humans: mainly hypertension, osteoarthritis, and an increased risk of diabetes and certain types of cancers solely because of their weight. 

Now, I have a confession to make -- I am the proud owner of an overweight Dachshund. I had no problem in recognizing that he was overweight, yet, as a member of the family, I had no qualms about giving him an extra treat when he was younger. Having now reached middle age for his breed, I'm beginning to notice what those extra pounds are doing to him from a health perspective; and it's not good. It's definitely difficult saying "no" to my dog, but I've managed to work off 17% of his previous body weight in the past year through smaller food portions and more rigorous exercise.

The point is that just as we saw with many cases of human obesity, pet obesity can be mitigated with proper diet, exercise, and a want by owners to change the quality of life for their pets. I'm making that move, but far too many owners are simply complacent in doing nothing.

Ignore this trend at your own risk
If you choose to do nothing, then you're playing right into the hands of pharmaceutical giants like Zoetis (NYSE: ZTS  ) , Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) , and IDEXX Laboratories (NASDAQ: IDXX  ) , which are counting on your indifference to drive their profits.

If you don't believe that pet obesity is an epidemic, all you need to do is look toward Zoetis' Slentrol, which is an anti-obesity pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration in early 2007 to treat dogs. That's right; a chronic weight management pill to treat our pets came more than five years before big pharma introduced a new anti-obesity pill for humans -- and yet, our pet obesity rate continues climb. In trials, Slentrol produced a mean weight loss of 11.8% in the 141 dogs tested, but it still requires the owner to stick to a dietary and exercise game plan to ensure the best chance of success. 

If your faithful feline or pup should ever develop diabetes from being overweight, chances are they could be prescribed Vetsulin, an FDA-approved insulin injection to treat diabetes mellitus made by Merck Animal Health and targeted at hyperglycemia. Two injections a day and close monitoring of your pet are required to provide successful glycemic balance using this drug.

IDEXX Labs is also counting on your overweight or obese pet to drive its small animal health products that range from in-home and veterinary office diagnostic and imaging tests, to software designed to optimize veterinarians' bottom lines. IDEXX's I-Vision Direct Capture system, for instance, could be called upon for its quick and crisp imaging capabilities to help diagnose osteoarthritis and other bone-related diseases in pets caused by being overweight. As obesity trends have risen so have IDEXX's sales, which are up by an average of 10.5% each year over the past decade.

How can we fix this?
The point here is simple -- we can choose to kill two birds with one stone by simply choosing to exercise with our pets. Instead of watching TV in the house, take your dog for a walk. Instead of playing video games, grab a toy for your feline friend and entertain them. The thing about health-consciousness is that it's incredibly contagious. Having your pet eating better and exercising more is likely to, in turn, get you eating better and exercising more as well. It's a vicious (but fantastic) cycle that will have you and your pet feeling better and living happier, healthier lives.

Another key takeaway is that, when push comes to shove, we will do just about anything to ensure the health of our pets, as they've crossed that barrier -- at least in America -- from being just a pet to becoming part of the family. This means that animal-focused pharmaceuticals like Zoetis, Merck, and IDEXX stand to benefit whether obesity trends continue to rise, and they could make for some of the smartest and safest investment on Wall Street.

While you can certainly make huge gains in biotech and pharmaceuticals, the best investing approach is to choose great companies and stick with them for the long term. The Motley Fool's free report "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich" names stocks that could help you build long-term wealth and retire well, along with some winning wealth-building strategies that every investor should be aware of. Click here now to keep reading.

Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 8:47 PM, GordonsGecko wrote:

    IDEXX does not produce drugs of any kind, unlike many big pharma companies who want to just give you pills to treat the symptoms instead of looking for ways to prevent disease. Labeling them as a pharma giant when they produce no drugs or medications at all is simply wrong and misinformed.

    I can assure you that they're not counting on your overweight pets to drive their sales. It is in their guiding principles to enhance the health and well being of pets and other animals. They are passionate about everything they do to help enhance the lives of pets and their owners.

    By your own admission, you'd have done things differently if you had understood what all of those extra treats would do to your pet. Did you know that IDEXX provides numerous educational materials regarding many manner of illness, disease, etc. to their end-user clinics for use with customers? They sponsor seminars, send literature and meet one on one with their customers to help assess the clinic's business and provide guidance on owner education. They provide Real-Time-Care diagnostic solutions so that Vets can talk immediately with pet owners about what is going on with their pets, how it fits in the pet's medical history and how it compares to other pets of the same breed.

    They walk the walk of promoting preventive medicine by helping their customers (the clinics) to educate pet owners about the health of their animals; bringing technology and information together in an easy to understand and communicate form.

    To label IDEXX as wanting you to have overweight pets is reckless, irresponsible and misinformed.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 9:25 PM, Artismylife wrote:

    I do not understand why they call it a hidden epidemic. I see it everywhere. All you have to do is go to a mall and you will see obesity all over the place. Go to a soccer game and see fat kids everywhere with their fat moms and dads telling them they did good. YOu will see fat girls trying to put all the rolls of pasta and cinnamon buns into a size 12 jeans when they know they really need a sizte 16. This epidemic is not hidden. It is in plain view of the entire world.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 10:07 PM, Sloppykisses wrote:

    Who cares? We won't have the social security to pay for them in their old age. Eat all you want and smoke 'em if you got 'em. Living past your 90's isn't in the public interest. Besides, who wants to?

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 10:41 PM, Sensitvesoul wrote:

    Artismylife, did you even read the article? The "hidden" epidemic they are writing about is the fact that American PETS are also becoming obese at great rates. Doesn't anyone see a connection here? American food=full of corn, soy, HFCS, American cheap pet food=full of the same corn and soy fillers.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 11:06 PM, bugmenot wrote:

    The problem is that too many people are basically illiterate. Inner city schools produce 20% of the kids with grade level reading capability. Inner city schools produce a HS graduation rate of 40%! You will notice there is high correlation of obesity to ignorance (academic success). What do you do? The brain won't stop eating without some motivation - tax obese people, make them pay on airplanes, double their healthcare costs, halve their welfare payments. Behavior change can only be accomplished with policy that forces the change.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 11:15 PM, PunkRock4Life wrote:

    You got it right, bugmenot. As harsh as it sounds, obese people need to suffer the consequences of their actions. Obesity and all the health problems it causes is the number one reason our healthcare system is in the toilet. But instead, what do obese people get? Free gym memberships, free dieting supplies, free weight loss surgeries, etc... They get all this free stuff for what? Making poor decisions? Where's my reward for keeping myself in shape? Just another example of people making bad choices in life and having someone else bail their ass out. Time for everyone to man up and take responsibility for their actions.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 11:27 PM, LafferT wrote:

    It's not hidden.

  • Report this Comment On April 15, 2013, at 11:27 PM, LafferT wrote:

    It's not hidden.

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2013, at 12:38 AM, sdkfjnksljnfkljn wrote:

    Your judgement on IDEXX/pet market is utterly wrong and I don't even work for them, simply am very much engrossed in the pet industry. Their jump in sales has nothing to do with pet obesity (which IS a major problem). It has to do with the fact that the public has been demanding higher quality diagnostic care for their animals for MANY reasons (obesity related issues are only one part of it) and veterinarians are beginning to comply even more so than ever. All you did was commit a fallacy of false cause without ever citing any evidence for your point. It's pathetic the shoddy workmanship of this article. But you're just a journalist what do you really know? I don't expect much from you folks.

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2013, at 1:29 AM, Riggerwo wrote:

    If the humans are fat, do no exercise and do not know how to feed themselves properly..what chance do their poor pets have????? More Pills from Big Pharma is not going to fix the problems other than line their already fat pockets with more cash. This is not rocket science...simple life style changes with out more drugs is the answer. The savings to the health care..sorry..disease management budget will be huge.

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2013, at 5:18 AM, Dadw5boys wrote:

    Buy stock in Bran Cereal makers and tell these people to eat at least 1 bowel of Bran Cereal a day or take xlax

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