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The 7 Healthiest Countries in the World

With the American Medical Association declaring obesity a disease in 2013, there's little denying how serious of a global epidemic the fight against the bulge is becoming. It's a fight, though, that isn't being waged in what I'd refer to as the select few "healthiest countries in the world."

This past spring we examined nine of the most obese countries in the world, according to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also known as the OECD. Unsurprisingly, the United States found its way to the top of the list with nearly 34% of its citizens weighing in as obese (defined as a body mass index above 30). According to the latest OECD findings, 53% of adults in its survey scope (40 countries) are now considered overweight (BMI of 25 or greater) or obese. 

The seven healthiest countries in the world
But not all countries are struggling with obesity issues. Certain factors have been key in allowing the following seven countries to keep their obesity rates low while other nations have witnessed soaring levels.

Based on the OECD's findings, here are the seven healthiest countries in the world:

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Of the 40 countries surveyed, only these seven managed an obesity rate of 10% or less. Furthermore, even though these countries offer some of the lowest obesity rates in the world, the majority saw rates increase since the last OECD study in 2000. Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Norway have all seen notable jumps in their obesity rates of 60 basis points, 90 basis points, 40 basis points, and 400 basis points, respectively, over the past decade. Only China's obesity rate has remained flat at 2.9%, while no data was available for India or Indonesia in 2000.

Here's why these countries are the healthiest
What are these countries doing that keeps their obesity levels low? Ultimately, the answer may lie with socioeconomic factors that alter eating habits within these nations.

Planting rice in India, Source: MckaySavage, Fotopedia.

One prevailing pattern that certainly helps keep obesity rates down is a higher prevalence of poverty than the OECD average. According to the organization, about 10% of adults are considered to be in poverty. In India, as of 2011-2012 the Planning Commission calculated the poverty rate to be at 22%! Amazingly enough, that's actually down from the 37.2% poverty rate in 2004-2005 and 29.8% in 2009-2010.High poverty rates limit nutritional food sources and cause citizens to live off rice, grains, and other relatively inexpensive foodstuffs, which keep many from indulging on high fat content foods that we've become accustomed to in the United States.

Another major factor to consider here is that the populations of all seven countries listed above could arguably be considered more active than citizens of the United States. In developing countries such as India, China, and Indonesia, not all citizens have the means to purchase a car, nor is the infrastructure necessarily there to support a large amount of industrialization as of yet. This means citizens in these countries are used to walking and relying on public transportation for their means of getting around. In Europe, public transportation is considerably better than that of the U.S., allowing many people to go without owning a car and simply rely on walking, buses, and subway systems for their transit needs.

Finally, there's a factor of what citizens in these countries eat as well. In Korea and Japan, for example, poverty isn't as big of an issue, but Korean and Japanese diets tends to be very low in fat content. Compare that to the U.S. where you can find a fast-food establishment on practically every corner, and the difference is night-and-day.

Here's why you should care
Another question potentially popping into your mind might be, "Why should I care?" Because for investors, the OECD figures can point toward two ways to use obesity data to get rich.

On one hand, countries with higher than average obesity rates could be perfect targets for weight control management drugs such as Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA  ) , Qsymia from VIVUS (NASDAQ: VVUS  ) , and even the experimental drug Contrave from Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX  ) .

As I described in May, each company brings its own unique positives to the table that could make any of these three, or all three for that matter, wildly successful. In trials, VIVUS' Qsymia was tops at delivering the greatest amount of weight loss in percentage terms, while Arena's Belviq delivered the most favorable safety profile of the two FDA-approved drugs. Contrave, by contrast, is being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, but it has also completed a long-term safety study (the Light Study) that demonstrated no adverse effects on patients' cardiovascular health. That could put Contrave in the fast lane to approval in both the U.S. and Europe and leave Arena and VIVUS in the rearview mirror.

Just as we can target countries with high obesity rates, these lower-obesity countries also give us an intriguing opportunity. Rather than looking within the pharmaceutical sector for our investment opportunity, we instead look toward poverty and economic inequality to help guide our investment. In other words, we need to improve crop yields so those who are impoverished have the ability to get a healthy amount of food in front of them each day.

Two names that could play an integral role in improving crop yields around the world are CF Industries (NYSE: CF  ) and Terra Nitrogen (NYSE: TNH  ) .

CF Industries is a phosphate and nitrogen-based producer of fertilizer, while Terra Nitrogen, as the name implies, deals with the production and sale of nitrogen-based products. Although prices for fertilizer were down in the dumps in 2013, this swoon appears temporary, as a growing number of people on this planet will push farmers around the globe to improve yield at almost any cost. Terra Nitrogen, which is a master-limited partnership, should continue to deliver impressive dividends to shareholders (it paid out $14.35 per share in 2013), while CF offers perhaps the best global product diversification of the group and also recently announced a dividend hike.

This transformation could have a big impact on the fight against obesity
Domestically, Obamacare is expected to revolutionize the health care system, including the way we see physicians and access our medication, such as weight control management drugs. Obamacare may seem complex, but it doesn't have to be. In only minutes, you can learn the critical facts you need to know in a special free report called Everything You Need to Know About Obamacare. This FREE guide contains the key information and money-making advice that every American must know. Please click here to access your free copy.

Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (2)

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 January 03, 2014, at 1:59 PM, TMFKris wrote:

    Is "healthiest" the same as "lowest percentage of citizens deemed obese"?

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:18 PM, manirg wrote:

    India the "healthiest"? Hardly. Title needs to be changed.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:58 PM, marp11 wrote:

    hmmm lets see

    contrave 2 avilalable FDA approval and may not get one

    Q---no marketing low sales no money


    hmmmmm lets see,,,,,

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:59 PM, marp11 wrote:




  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 3:23 PM, jliebesfeld2772 wrote:

    The article mentioned percentages of healthiest countries, but did consider that India, Indonesia and China have the among the largest total populations compared to the other four countries cited and the uncited rest of the globe, meaning that those fractional percentages amount to many times the actual number of obese people in for example Switzerland or Norway.

    Additionally, Orex may have a good product, however, even if Contrave is approved in the US/Europe the path to leaving VVUS and ARNA in the rear view mirror is based upon the stated approvals and successful marketing and sales. Mathematically, the article gives an outlook based upon perfection within a stock sector where perfection has yet to occur, another variable. With Arena gaining ground on VVUS, and OREX not even in the game with a product, the zealous stated outlook seems over-the-top !!

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 4:45 PM, JGalt2B wrote:

    If the position of is that Obamacare is going to improve healthcare and the health of Americans I seriously question its judgement and lack of bias. I will consider myself forewarned about relying on future analyses.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 8:08 PM, LazyCapitalist wrote:

    Japanese cuisine is low in fat, but insanely high in sodium. Japan has a problem with heart disease because of that (not solely because of that, definitely a large contributing factor). Looking fit on the outside, but unhealthy on the inside.

    Japan is also littered with fast food restaurants. Of the U.S. brands there are the typical McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut brands, but Japan has many of very popular homegrown fast food brands as well like Mos Burger, Pizza-La, Sukiya (fast food gyuudon "beef bowl"), and CoCo Ichiban (fast food Japanese-curry).

    Within in a roughly 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) radius of where I live (relatively small Japanese town), there are three McDonald's restaurants, two Sukiya restaurants, one KFC restaurant, three Mos Burger restaurants, one Pizza-La restaurant, one CoCo Ichiban restaurant, and six or so other Japanese fast food chain restaurants. And I'm not counting the tens of thousands of Japanese convenience stores here which are like fast food restaurants themselves (large selection of prepared foods).

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 9:41 AM, marp11 wrote:

    osmelli will be taking over here on monday

    adam and spencer close behind

    its very hard when retail will not sell


    very very hard

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2014, at 1:48 PM, jmp03172 wrote:

    As others have noted, the article takes a Fool's leap in correlating obesity rates with overall health status. Also, higher poverty rates are associated with numerous health problems, even if rates of obesity are low. Smoking has increased dramatically in China and Japan, causing them to develop many more health problems. The cost of cigarettes in Switzerland is about $17/pack, which helps keep them healthy. All-in-all, it's not all about poverty - our own poverty rate has persisted at about 15% (46.5 million people).

    To properly cite the healthiest nations in the world, one would need to look at the percentage of moderate to serious health problems per capita. I believe your findings would be very different. As for obesity, healthcare professionals continue with the same mantra of more exercise and a better diet, all of which has had no measurable impact. That is what has made for fertile ground for the obesity drugs, with Belviq certainly the front-runner with it's favorable side-effect profile and weight loss that is much closer to that of Qysmia's than you suggest.

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Sean Williams

A Fool since 2010, and a graduate from UC San Diego with a B.A. in Economics, Sean specializes in the healthcare sector and in investment planning topics. You'll usually find him writing about Obamacare, marijuana, developing drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices, Social Security, taxes, or any number of other macroeconomic issues.

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