With the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pinpointing the United States as the most obese country in the world, it can be hard to find many positives with regard to health statistics. Obesity has been linked to a number of health complications including being at a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. In addition to increased personal health complications, it can also strain a health care system that isn't equipped to deal with a growing number of people who are showing up in hospitals with weight-related complications.
The good news is that obesity awareness is increasing thanks to the efforts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a growing number of people who've decided to make a different lifestyle choice. In addition, many restaurants and grocery stores are catering to changing demands that call for healthier and more nutritious food and beverage choices.
If there were a gold star to be given to anyone in the U.S., it would be the following seven states, which, according to a Gallup poll conducted in collaboration with Healthways, are the least obese.
It's clear that there are certainly cultural and socioeconomic factors at work here that are playing into the hands of higher and lower obesity rates.
The cultural impact of obesity
As you'll notice, the seven least obese states in the U.S. are located in the West or in New England. While I wouldn't dare talk poorly about deep fried food in the South, or a cheesesteak in Philly, there certainly seems to be a correlation based on the Gallup poll that food with considerably higher fat content leads to higher obesity rates.
Take Dunkin Brands' (NASDAQ:DNKN), for instance, with its army of Dunkin' Donuts stores up and down the East Coast. Its doughnuts are baked instead of deep fried which does give them the added bonus of being a bit healthier; but that still hasn't saved them from being largely unsuccessful in penetrating the West Coast.
In 1999, Dunkin pulled out of California after 12 stores failed to inspire the desired results, then tried to reenter the Sacramento market unsuccessfully three years later. Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to blame Dunkin' Brands for higher obesity trends in the South and East Coast (in fact, I can't wait to get my doughnut when I go back to New York this summer!). However, I think Dunkin's lack of success out West helps demonstrates that the cultural awareness of what we're eating is much higher on the West Coast and in these seven states than anywhere else in the U.S.
Socioeconomic factors matter, too!
Socioeconomic factors are also at work here. People with less income simply have fewer options when it comes to their choice of food and are often forced to opt for fast food. While not a precise science, looking at data from the U.S. Census Bureau averaged over a three-year period and examining average household income by state found that five of the seven least obese states rank in the top 14 in terms of U.S. household income. Higher income gives consumers more choices and access to healthier food options that lower income families don't have.
We're beginning to see a shift in these trends from some of the nation's most-frequented fast-food establishments. Take McDonald's, for example, which was credited with introducing wraps last decade and was one of the first fast-food retailers to put salads on its menu. Even Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) provides a great example. Known in the past for its coffee and pastries, Starbucks has dramatically expanded its food offerings to include many locally grown and organic sandwiches and snacks. Although I wouldn't dare lump Starbucks in the same category as "fast food restaurants" like McDonald's, they're all on the same team with regard to beefing up their health food selections.
Undeniable truth in numbers
If there were any doubts about the correlation between obesity and health complications, then Gallup's results also assisted in putting those to rest. According to the same survey, Colorado, Utah and California ranked first, fourth, and fifth in terms of lowest incidences of high blood pressure, while Colorado and Utah ranked second and sixth best in terms of lowest incidences of diabetes. In short, lower obesity rates are associated with fewer incidences of cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
These numbers are great news for health benefits providers like CIGNA and UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH). UnitedHealth is one of Colorado's largest insurers, while CIGNA offers a big presence in Utah. If fewer people are dealing with high blood pressure and diabetes in these states, then UnitedHealth and CIGNA would be expected to keep more of their premium as profit since people in these states should be visiting the doctor less often. Understandably the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will cap health insurers' medical loss ratio at 80%, but this is still great news for insurers operating in these states.
Where we're heading
With obesity rates leveling off over the past year we as a nation could be at the precipice of a reversal in our expanding waistlines. Naturally, for this trend to take off, it'll take some combination of lifestyle change with regard to the foods we eat. It could also entail the use of chronic weight management drugs for those people where exercise and proper diet simply isn't enough.
VIVUS' (NASDAQ:VVUS) Qsymia and Arena Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ:ARNA) Belviq are two relatively new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration that may fit this role nicely. Belviq is still awaiting final labeling from the Drug Enforcement Agency before it finds its way to pharmacy shelves, while Qsymia sales are finally starting to pick up as more insurers begin covering the out-of-pocket costs associated with the medication. It's a bit tough to tell this early in the game which weight loss medication will prove to be the choice of physicians, with Qsymia providing the best weight loss results in trials and Belviq the slightly better safety profile; yet these two drugs are certain to play a major role in the coming years in terms of slimming waistlines in those who previously had little hope.
Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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