Fat Profits: How Investors Can Capitalize on Obesity Battle

By Jeff Cox, CNBC.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- More than one-third of Americas are considered obese, and investors looking to capitalize on the battle to reverse the trend could find themselves well-fed.

Getting financially fat off the "globesity" fight to help overweight Americans is the latest investing thesis from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which believes global efforts to attack the problem will provide opportunities to make money.

The firm divides its recommendations across four sectors and more than 50 stocks that will benefit, particularly for those investors with longer time frames.

"Although it is difficult to accurately gauge the link between such exposure and share price performance, ... we still consider fighting obesity exposure an important and positive point to track, given that obesity is a sustainability megatrend with a 25-50 year lifespan," BofA equity analyst Sarbjit Nahal said in an analysis for clients.

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Some 1.4 billion of the world's 7 billion residents are considered overweight, and 500 million are classified as obese, according to the World Health Organization.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 35.7% of the population is obese, with nine states having more than a 30% rate and no state under 20%.

Medical costs associated with obesity are currently around $150 billion a year, with those numbers only expected to climb.

Such statistics help make the case for the BoA fat-fighting play.

"This will require a 25-50 year 'systems perspective,' in our view, targeting multiple stakeholders and environments, going beyond health to include the food and beverage industry, schools, work environments, insurers tackling sedentary lifestyles and encouraging increasing physical activity," Nahal said.

The firm breaks its recommendations into four sectors: pharmaceuticals and health care; food; commercial weight loss, diet management and nutrition; and sports apparel and equipment.

Among the long list of stocks BofA recommends: The pharma plays include Allergan ( AGN) and St. Jude Medical ( STJ); while in food familiar names include ConAgra ( CAG), Heinz ( HNZ) and Panera ( PNRA).

The four diet management and nutrition stocks on the list include Herbalife ( HLF) and Weight Watchers ( WTW), while the sports apparel and equipment space includes Under Armour ( UA), Dick's ( DKS) and Nike ( NKE).

"We view Medicare's adoption of obesity counseling onto coverage as a significant step in recognizing obesity as a legitimate health concern," Nahal said.

Health care stocks have been solid performers in 2012, ranking fifth of the 10 sectors on the Standard & Poor's 500 with a 9.9% gain, though returns have slowed considerably in the second quarter.

--Written by Jeff Cox at CNBC
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