The obese and overweight population now exceeds the number of underfed people in the world, according to Credit Suisse, which has identified obesity as the latest investment trend.

Credit SuisseÆs so-called obesity prevalence model shows that, globally, 1.8 billion people were obese or overweight in 2007. Meanwhile, the Worldwatch Institute showed that the number of underfed people declined slightly to 1.1 billion from 1980 to 2000.

The United States has traditionally been the focus of the obesity epidemic, but obesity rates throughout the world are increasing, with populations in Asia facing the greatest potential growth in prevalence, says Credit Suisse. The obese population in China, for example, is expected to increase 347% between 2005 and 2015, and Japan recently enacted a national law that mandates a maximum waist size for its citizens.

While obesity alone can significantly shorten oneÆs lifespan, obesity is linked to several other diseases and illnesses, particularly Type II diabetes, a disease typically restricted to adults that is now affecting obese children. Credit Suisse estimates the total cost associated with overweight and obese individuals in the US at around $117 billion, adding that the national cost of childhood obesity is around $11 billion for children with private insurance.

Across the healthcare and consumer sectors, companies are adapting their business strategies to better accommodate the growing overweight and obese population, Credit Suisse notes, while capitalising on the trend towards better health and weight management.

Credit Suisse identifies 15 companies that are best equipped to benefit from the trend towards healthier living: Allergan, Merck, Healthways, and Novo Nordisk in the healthcare sector; and DickÆs Sporting Goods, Life Time Fitness, Lululemon Athletica, Nike, Under Armour, CVS, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Safeway, and Kuala Lumpur Kepong in the consumer sector.

Credit Suisse makes the case for the 15 mostly US-listed companies:

NYSE-listed Allergan: The US market for gastric bands was about $220mm in 2007and is forecast to grow to about $850mm by 2012. Allergan has some key advantages from being ahead in the market to expanding its label in adolescent obesity and lower BMI patients, as well as the recent positive published study on lowering Type II diabetes.

Nasdaq-listed Healthways: The firm has the greatest exposure and strongest strategies to take advantage of the trend towards preventative care in the healthcare services delivery system.

NYSE-listed Merck: The firm is a major US pharmaceutical company with differentiated products in all segments of the obesity market (diabetes, lipids and weight reduction). Sales of these obesity products rose at a meaningful rate of 15% and grew as a proportion of total company sales from 16% to 25%.

Coppenhagen-listed Novo Nordisk: The firm is a major European pharmaceutical company with over 70% revenue exposure to the diabetes market. It is the number one insulin player worldwide and has remained a leading research company in the area of diabetes developing innovative treatments offering weight benefits.

NYSE-listed Dick's Sporting Goods: The firm is the largest full-line sporting goods retailer in the US. Several competitive advantages, combined with double-digit store growth, should position it to benefit disproportionately from a more health-focused society.

NYSE-listed Life Time Fitness: The firm is one of the few health centre companies that targets families and could benefit if the younger population becomes more physically active. As the firm continues to grow units in new and existing markets, it is expected to achieve large market share gains, as smaller box fitness clubs are not likely to compete effectively with its high-quality facilities and services.

Nasdaq-listed Lululemon Athletica: The firm is a fast growing and vertically integrated specialty retailer that could benefit from increased acceptance of fitness trends. The company's brand is identified with yoga-inspired merchandise.

NYSE-listed Nike: The firm is the leading global sports apparel brand. A population that is increasingly focused on healthy living is expected to devote more time to exercising, which will increase sales of athletic apparel and footwear.

NYSE-listed Under Armour: The firm is the fastest growing US sports apparel company with 25% top line growth projected in 2008 and 2009. A population that is increasingly focused on healthy living is expected to devote more time to exercising, which will increase sales of athletic apparel and footwear.

NYSE-listed CVS: The firm is a major drug retailer that stands to benefit from the increased use of prescription weight loss drugs, vitamins/supplements, weight management, therapy and health clinics.

Paris-listed Danone: As the ôhealthiestö company in Credit SuisseÆs European packaged food coverage universe, it has a portfolio that is broadly split: 58% yoghurt, 19% beverages (principally water), 17% baby food, 6% clinical nutrition.

NYSE-listed General Mills: The firm is one of the best-positioned packaged food companies for marketing healthier, more convenient foods. Key nutritious and healthy categories are yoghurt, cereal, soup, granola bars and frozen vegetables, making up roughly 53% of its sales.

NYSE-listed Kellogg: The firm is one of the best-positioned packaged food companies to capture the growing trend towards health and wellness with its leadership position in cereals.

NYSE-listed Safeway: Through its rollout of ôlifestyleö stores, the firm has quickly become the leader for high quality and fresh goods among the conventional players.

Malaysia-listed Kuala Lumpur Kepong: The firm is Credit SuisseÆs top pick in the upstream palm oil sector which benefits from the trend towards the elimination of trans-fats.