Trim Your Body and Taxes

IRS Allows Deduction of Certain Weight-Loss Expenses After an Obesity Diagnosis

Trim Your Body and Taxes March 2, 2004 -- If you're under a doctor-decreed weight-loss plan because obesity threatens your health, you may be able to do some trimming on that other heavy load -- your tax bill. The IRS allows taxpayers to deduct certain expenses related to combating obesity and its related diseases.

Note the caveat word -- certain.

"The expense needs to be related specifically and only to weight loss," IRS spokeswoman Michelle Lamishaw tells WebMD.

That means stomach-stapling surgery is deductible, but not ab-crunching fitness classes. "A gym membership doesn't qualify because it's not just for weight reduction," she says. "A gym membership is also for muscle-building and general wellness."

The cost of Weight Watcher's meetings or other nutritional counseling is a write-off, but not the cost of Jenny Craig food. "The cost of food is not deductible because you have to eat, and just because it's less caloric doesn't make it deductible," she says. "When you're dieting, you don't have to eat Jenny Craig."

Prescription weight-loss drugs qualify, but not over-the-counter "carb blockers" or other products, as is the case for most allowed medical and dental deductions.

And that's exactly what the "weight-loss tax deduction" is -- part of the allowed medical and dental deductions spelled out in IRS Publication 502 that covers some 75 categories, ranging from abortions and acupuncture to wheelchairs and wigs.

Deduct Your Losses

To claim the weight-loss tax deduction adopted two years ago, taxpayers must itemize uncompensated expenses that have been recommended specifically to lose weight after a doctor's formal diagnosis.

"This diagnosis can be either for the condition of obesity or for any other medical condition to which weight loss would play a role in alleviating it, such as hypertension," Lamishaw tells WebMD. "You should have some written record of that diagnosis for your files, but you don't need to submit it with your tax forms."

The expenses must be itemized, and (with other allowed medical deductions) must exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income.

For someone with an adjusted gross income of $50,000, weight loss and other medical expenses would have to exceed $3,750; for a household earning $80,000 after adjustments, it translates to $6,000 in annual costs.

In practical terms, this translates to a slim chance that most Americans trying to trim down can also trim their taxes with only diet and exercise. However, many people getting gastric-bypass surgery could get the deduction, since some insurance plans don't cover this $25,000 "stomach-stapling" operation.

"Yet I have never had a single patient inquire about the weight-loss tax deduction," says Walter J. Pories, MD, past president of the American Society of Bariatric Surgery, one of nine organizations that first petitioned the IRS in 1999 to allow a tax deduction for weight loss treatment -- three years before the IRS recognized obesity as a disease and allowed for the deduction.

Says Jacqueline Viteri, spokeswoman for the American Obesity Association, which lobbies federal agencies on issues related to obesity and also petitioned the IRS: "There is a possible benefit for individuals, but they really need to incur a high cost from treatment. We sometimes get emails or phone calls from people asking what or if they can deduct. ... We just refer them to an accountant."

SOURCES: Michelle Lamishaw, spokeswoman, Internal Revenue Service, Washington, D.C. Walter J. Pories, MD, professor of surgery and biochemistry, East Carolina University School of Medicine, Greenville, N.C.; past president, American Society for Bariatric Surgery. Jacqueline Viteri, spokeswoman, American Obesity Association, Washington, D.C. Internal Revenue Service.

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