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The 9 Most Obese Countries in the World

The world is expanding, but unfortunately it's not the global economy whose waistline needs to go up a size.

The rate of worldwide obesity has been marching higher at an extraordinary rate for more than three decades now. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, known as the OECD, fewer than one in 10 people were considered obese in 1980. As of 2011, 19 of the 34 OECD countries have a majority of their population that's either overweight (defined as a body mass index above 25) or obese (a BMI of more than 30).

A growing problem
The reason for higher obesity rates is pretty simple among the world's economic powerhouses: living conditions, education, and incomes have been improving. Certainly the diverse eating habits of different cultures has some bearing on this as well, but the trend has been unmistakably higher across all OECD countries.

As of the OECD's most recent data available, here are the nine most obese countries in the world:

Source: OECD health data 2011. Obesity rate in adults. 

The concern with obesity is that it puts people at higher risk of developing certain cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. Even more than that, it can affect those around you vis-a-vis health care costs. Obesity-related costs are responsible for 1%-3% of all health expenditures in most countries, with that figure jumping to somewhere in the 5%-10% range for the U.S. which tops the list of most obese nations. Furthermore, if you add in the lost production caused by obesity-related ailments on top of these health care costs, obesity costs are more than 1% of the total U.S. GDP!

These nine countries and their inhabitants really have two choices: be proactive or reactive.

The proactive response
Being proactive is the simple act of people making a conscientious choice to live a healthier lifestyle. This approach is accomplished by exercising on a regular basis and eating more nutritious foods, as well as by government agencies encouraging healthier lifestyles for its citizens.

You might think that gyms would offer an interesting investment opportunity in a situation like this, but customer loyalty is historically very poor. The smart way to play a proactive lifestyle change from an investment perspective is to target organic and natural food companies. Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM  ) , for instance, has built its success upon offering locally grown natural and organic foods to consumers. Although organic foods cost more than what you'd find at your traditional grocery store, they are often more nutritious. You'll also find that consumers are more than willing to pay more for food if they know it's better for them.

But, it isn't just grocers that are making the difference. Fresh-Mex chain Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) offers a full line of meats that are free of antibiotics and synthetic hormones under its Food with Integrity pledge. It's another way of supporting local farmers and a big move toward encouraging healthier eating habits among its consumers.

The reactive response
Understandably, proper diet and exercise will not work for everyone. You can blame it on genetics if you'd like, but the reactive response is where medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration steps in.

Over the past year, we've had two new potential chronic weight management drugs approved by the FDA: Qsymia by VIVUS (NASDAQ: VVUS  ) and Belviq by Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA  ) . Keep in mind that these aren't wonder drugs, but they did show significant promise in trials. Belviq, for example, induced weight-loss in excess of 5% in 38% of patients during trials while also providing better glycemic balance in patients with type 2 diabetes. VIVUS' Qsymia delivered comparatively intriguing results with 62% of recommended dosage patients losing at least 5% of their body weight in trials.

Unfortunately, chronic weight management drugs aren't magic pills. Qsymia has quite a few restrictions attached to it, including recommendations by the FDA not to use it if you're pregnant or if you've had a recent history of unstable heart disease. Similarly, Belviq isn't recommended for those who are pregnant and should be closely monitored in patients with congestive heart failure. These concerns were enough to keep Qsymia (known as Qsiva in Europe) and Belviq from being approved by the European Medicines Agency (essentially the FDA of the EU) because of unique safety concerns attached with each drug.

However, there still exists plenty of promise within the U.S. and abroad for both drugs -- if they can harness that potential, that is! Arena, I've long thought, has a one-up on VIVUS in that it's chosen to partner with pharmaceutical giant Eisai Pharmaceuticals to handle its marketing and distribution, whereas VIVUS is going it alone. Eisai's experience could be the factor that makes Belviq the better selling anti-obesity drug.

Arena and Eisai's collaborative deal covers most of North and South America, including the U.S., Mexico, and Canada -- the first, second, and sixth most-obese nations -- according to the OECD. Arena also has a marketing and distribution partnership in place in South Korea with Ildong Pharmaceuticals. However, South Korea is the least obese country of all, coming in at just 3.8% of the population, so that partnership is far less important than its tie-ins with Eisai.

Another name worth keeping an eye on here is Orexigen Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: OREX  ) , which is in the process of developing its own chronic weight management drug known as Contrave. The drug was rejected in 2011 because of long-term cardiovascular concerns, but Orexigen has run extended safety trials and could resubmit its new drug application before the year is out.

The battle against obesity rages on
With Qsymia only recently becoming available in the U.S. and with Belviq still awaiting final labeling from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency before it can find its way onto pharmacy shelves, the reactive side of the business really hasn't had much chance to shine. Hopefully, within the next three to five years we'll see the start of a decline in nationwide obesity trends among these nine most-obese countries; but it'll also take a conscientious effort by the people living there to lead healthier lives. I do feel there's ample hope down the road for a slimmer global population and plenty of potential for fatter stock prices for some of the companies mentioned here.

As the United States continues to change it's approach to healthcare, obesity is sure to maintain its status as a high profile topic. What other high profile health topic was Warren Buffett referring to when he said "this is the tapeworm that's eating at American competitiveness"? Find out in our free report: What's Really Eating At America's Competitiveness. You’ll also discover an idea to profit as companies work to eradicate this efficiency-sucking tapeworm. Just click here for free, immediate access.

Read/Post Comments (12) | Recommend This Article (16)

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 May 20, 2013, at 5:28 PM, CancerStrikes2 wrote:

    And Yet, many Americans are still in denial... They still think they don't need to stay thin, cut down the calories? Unbelievable. Dont they understand soon these fat pple got sick and no one able to Lift them, Care for them?

  • Report this Comment On May 20, 2013, at 7:45 PM, stockwatcher0153 wrote:

    The article is somewhat misleading, Belviq is much safer than Qsymia (I don't know about the Orixgen product).

  • Report this Comment On May 20, 2013, at 8:32 PM, leeta16 wrote:

    you guys forgot TONGA with 60%of its people obese!

  • Report this Comment On May 20, 2013, at 10:25 PM, TheStockDoctor wrote:

    Yes, well, all you need to do is look at our OBESE government and you know the stats are true.

  • Report this Comment On May 20, 2013, at 11:58 PM, Bobz74 wrote:

    So you print an article calling us all obese then you ask for our comments to be respectful?

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2013, at 12:21 AM, matthewluke wrote:

    None of your food stock picks actually address the obesity problem. Natural and organic foods do not automatically equal weight less. There are plenty of sugar-filled and fattening natural and organic foods. I can go to Whole Foods or Chipotle and gain just as much weight as I can from shopping at Safeway and Taco Bell. Which in itself can be a problem, if people are automatically associating natural/organic with less calories/fat/sugar.

    Will the quality of the food at Chipotle be better than Taco Bell? Certainly. Would I rather Chipotle food than Taco Bell food? Definitely. But if I eat helping after helping after helping of burritos at either restaurant, I will consume pretty much the same amount of calories.

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2013, at 12:23 AM, matthewluke wrote:

    *do not automatically equal weight loss.

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2013, at 6:47 AM, thewad71 wrote:

    There is nothing that proves Belviq is safer than Qsymia, but all trials show Qsymia is far more effective.

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2013, at 8:32 AM, pHbalanced wrote:

    One knows little except through personal exprience. I lost 50 lbs. and reached what I guess is my ideal weight (190, 63 yr-old male) without trying to lose weight.

    I consciously and slowly changed my diet to primarily non-processed, whole foods.

    I learned that when you eat natural, nutricious food you don't need to eat much. I learned from others how to prepare very simple, delicious, filling snacks and meals. I eat whenever I'm hungry and have not gained back any weight for 8 months now. And I feel WAY better than I used to.

    Read the obituaries in your local paper and you'll see that the people dying in their 40's and 50's almost equals those dying in their 80's and 90's.

    Eat healthy or die too young.

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2013, at 6:13 PM, The1MAGE wrote:

    More worthless drugs. They both have side effects, and warnings of the dangers of taking too much.

    One (Qsymia) is a controlled substance, and addictive.

    The other (Belviq) works by increasing serotonin levels. the supplement 5-htp does the same thing without all the side effects.

    Qsymia had about a third of the people in their studies drop out. (40% in one, and 31% in another.) Depending on who dropped out, this could have skewed final results. But even then the benefits over diet and exercise alone were little more then half a pound a month. (I averaged out the year.) There are otc supplements that can beat that.

    The old ephedrine caffeine stack, that was banned, (even though acetaminophen, i.e. Tylenol, killed about 7 times as many people per year,) resulted in 4 times that weight loss. (About 2.2 lbs, or 1 kilogram per month based on a 6 month double blind study.)

    Regardless, nothing works without diet and exercise. But the only reason any diet pill sells is because people want the easy route.

    I do know of a person who has a phenomenal success rate with diet and exercise, and he makes it as easy as possible by making one simple change every two weeks. After the change has become a lifestyle habit, he adds in another very simple change. If a person struggles with a change, he makes the change smaller, and or easier.

  • Report this Comment On July 05, 2013, at 1:55 PM, dcstover1 wrote:


  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2014, at 1:02 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    It figures that this article would tout drugs as an investment idea to monetize this dangerous phenomenon.

    It looks like one risk factor -- though clearly not determinative -- is living in an Anglo-Saxon society, or being exposed to its dietary norms, as Mexicans are. Maybe the style of eating, plus the stress, could be to blame? This is speculative, of course. It would take some kind of heavy-duty science, over years, to know for sure.

    In the meantime, these people are dangerously fat and a drain on medical resources.

    Interesting that the difference in availability of medical care, and how it's paid for, seems not to be a factor. These countries couldn't be more different in how they provide medical care.

    One thing is for sure -- the "free market" has not prevented American obesity. Why not? The monetary incentives are clearly there, in addition to the obvious personal incentives. Insurance premiums would be much lower, and pretty much everyone has hefty copays as well. My, what a mystery.

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