As the fight against obesity grows, the obese population is growing as well.

Nearly 150 million people in the U.S. are obese or overweight, according to market research statistics. With little evidence of this demographic slimming down, experts say the obesity market is rife with opportunities for businesses to cash in.

Safer weight-loss drugs 

When it comes to making eating choices, consumers have a dizzying array of options. They can go full fat, low fat, reduced fat, sugar free, just to name a few. Or they can turn to weight-loss drugs, which are expected to bring in $222 million for U.S. pharmaceutical companies this year, according to Kate Sullivan, an analyst at Decision Research.

Sullivan says she expects pharmacotherapy to become more popular as a complement to a diet-and-exercise regime, and says major-market sales of obesity drugs are expected to grow from $222 million to $2.6 billion by 2020 at an annual 20% growth rate.

Since patients are typically diagnosed as “obese” after they seek treatment for an obesity-related disease like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, remedies that can act on both the disease and weight-loss fronts stand a greater chance of approval. Nova Nordisk’s liraglutide (Victoza), a Type 2 diabetes agent, and Vivus’ Qnexa are positioned to capture 87% of the over-weight market from blockbuster sales during the next 10 years, according to Sullivan.

Expanding Medical Devices  

Providing medical treatment to the overweight population has also become a focus for businesses, as the challenges of handling an obese patient can sometimes pose threats to both patient and caregiver safety.

Medical devices and equipment-maker Stryker developed its bariatric line in response to changing patient demographics over the last 20 to 30 years. Bariatrics falls under the $2 million patient handling market that showed 11% growth in 2010.

Because hospitals are admitting a greater number of older, sicker and heavier patients, the industry has had to rethink its standards of care, including making accommodations for heavier patients. The company’s hospital beds can now accommodate patients between 500 and 1,000 pounds versus the 200 pounds they used to hold, according to Christine Broda, prevention program manager in Stryker’s patient care business.

Stryker added motorized drive systems on select beds and stretchers. The zoom motorized feature “virtually eliminates pushing,” says Broda, to more easily transport overweight patients. Integrated scales allow patients to be weighed in bed in any position. The company also added power built-in lifts and turn assist positioning capabilities to permit easier and safer patient movement. All told, innovations in this market contributed to 21% of Stryker’s growth in 2010.

While the changes were implemented with safety in mind, Broda says preserving the dignity of the patients was also a main priority.

Communities for the Obese

In March 2009, Jay Solomon launched  More of Me to Love, an online community and marketplace targeted to overweight consumers. The site aims to help overweight people feel more comfortable and focuses on improving self-esteem.

“People of size are skewed in a shaming way,” says Solomon. “Fat is not a four-letter word.”

The website offers community boards, resources and specialty products like seat belt extenders as well as medical equipment and devices. Innovative add-ons to products accommodate special needs. For example, Solomon says motorized chairs can be customized with a gluteal shelf seat option with a curtain that provides room and shielding for fat at the bottom of the back.

Experts in nutrition, fitness and mental health also provide actionable wellness tips on the site.

“Health comes in every size,” Solomon says, challenging the societal assumption that fat people are always unhealthy.

“If you’re 400 pounds, you can’t do jumping jacks, but you can do aerobics with low impact.”

More Fashion Variety

While there have been major strides in the fashion world to include more average-sized models, up until recently, finding modern, fashionable clothes in plus sizes was a challenge.   

Web-based retailer ideeli started offering plus-size sales on name brands after its Facebook and Twitter fans began expressing a strong interest in seeing larger-sized options on the site.

Paul Hurley, ideeli’s CEO and cofounder, says the retailer’s foray into the plus-size market is a good testament to why it’s important to listen to your customers. Ideeli’s lines pull from more than 100 brands including Suzi Chin, Tahari, Arthur S. Levine, CJ by Cookie Johnson and Donna Ricco, and include lingerie, swim and office wear. 

“We heard about our retail gap and got on it.”

Since ideeli’s November 2010 inaugural, weekly sales for plus sizes (which typically start at size 14 or 1x) have steadily increased.

Hurley did point out that many of the higher-end luxury brands typically overlook this market.  Ideeli’s lines pull from over 100 brands including Suzi Chin, Tahari, Arthur S. Levine, CJ by Cookie Johnson and Donna Ricco, and include lingerie, swim and office wear. 

“Our brands are great, but not so much luxury, or top-of-the-top. Those designers typically design for a slimmer silhouette.”

Still, Hurley, whose company is a sponsor for New York’s Fashion Week, says he is focused on his mission of bringing Soho to Main Street and takes pride in catering to an underserved market.

“It’s a good business, a growing business, a virtuous business… a combination of inspiration and gestalt, the excitement of the aesthetic—and an opportunity for our customers to express themselves wherever and whoever they are, knowing that fashion doesn’t stop at size six.”