Obesity is big business in the United States

By Jui Chakravorty

New York - American fast-food chains may be introducing healthier menu items such as salads and major food manufacturers may be trimming portion sizes, but not everyone has joined the fight against obesity.

An increasing number of entrepreneurs have discovered there's big money to be made out of catering to Americans' bulging waistlines, without seeking to trim them down.

It's big business.

Freedom Paradise, a 112-room resort south of Cancun, Mexico, bills itself as the world's first resort designed for obese people. Its amenities include large armless chairs, wide steps with railings in swimming pools, walk-in showers instead of bathtubs, stronger hammocks and a staff steeped in sensitivity training.

Nearly a third of American adults are obese (a Body Mass Index of 30 or more), according to the Centre for Disease Control. In 2000, more than 300 million adults in the world were obese and a billion were overweight, according to the World Health Organisation.

"We are no longer a niche market. Overweight people are the majority in this country," 147kg Mindy Sommers said, referring to the 64 percent of Americans who are overweight. "Businesses that don't cater to us are stupid. There are a lot of us, and we have a lot of money to spend."

An expanding obese population is providing lots of demand for businesses that supply things that are plus-size, from larger towels to larger beds, larger clothes to larger jewellery, larger furniture to larger coffins.

Amplestuff.com, an online retailer, sells nearly everything to the obese market, including seat belt extenders, larger umbrellas, larger clothing hangers, larger towels and weighing scales that can accommodate up to 450kg.

Kelly Bliss, who calls herself "the nation's leader in fitness for very large people", sells video tapes that feature workouts for the obese. All her tapes are geared toward larger people, with one that features a 227kg woman doing workouts while sitting.

Bliss is also the creator of Plussizeyellowpages.com, a resource that lists a range of services for the larger population, from home furnishings to plus-size kayaks.

Businesses providing products for the larger population comprise a multibillion-dollar industry, said Gary Epstein, chief executive of Euro RSCG Tatham, a global communications group, which recently released a study on obesity.

Plus-size clothing alone brings in $17-billion (about R115-billion) a year.

Fatcities.com, an Internet-based company that sells a wide variety of items designed for the plus-size population, advertises a $999 couch designed to accommodate 250kg users. It has wider and deeper dimensions than a regular couch, eight legs to support and balance the weight, and a firm foam seat to prevent sagging.

"A woman wrote to us and said that her 350-pound (160kg) son sat on her patio furniture and it broke," said Graziella Ferrante, who owns Fatcities.com. She then contacted a furniture company and partnered with them to sell the innovative pieces.

"It was the first of its kind," said Ferrante.

The obese population has increased worldwide by 100 million between 1995 and 2000, according to the World Health Organisation.

Batesville Casket, owned by Hillenbrand Industries, has seen nearly a 20-percent growth in sales of oversized coffins in the past five years, said Jo Weigel, director of communications for the company.

An oversized casket can cost double the amount of a regular casket at funeral homes, according to Dean Magliocca, owner of FuneralDepot.com, the largest online casket provider.

"What we need is a solution to the obesity, but what we have is people feeding the problem to make money off the obese people," said Epstein of Euro RSCG Tatham. "Sadly, this is to be expected in a capitalistic economy."

"I don't look at it that way," said Ferrante of Fatcities.com. "The fact of the matter is that we're big, and we need the same things that thin people do."

Bliss, Sommers and Ferrante are going together to visit Freedom Paradise, the size-friendly Mexican resort, this month.

"I've tried to fight my self-consciousness and go to a beach for many years," said Sommers. "Now I can just go and have a good time."

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