The IRS, Your Weight & You

Obesity & Weight Loss Programs

In April of 2002 the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officially recognized obesity as a disease, making it far easier for American taxpayers to trim their tax bills and waistlines at the same time. The step is an important one, not so much because of savings to taxpayers (the deduction really has only limited value), but more because it marks a shift in government point of view.

Whether it’s due to unhealthy lifestyles that lead to obesity, or to the obesity itself, overfat people suffer greater risk for disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Excess body fat is also strongly linked to depression and poor self-esteem. One recent study suggested that obesity exacts an even higher toll on health than smoking or drinking and raises an individual’s lifetime health care costs by a whopping 36%.

Clearly, reversing the rising tide of obesity is important. A potential tax break offers a kind of official recognition that’s encouraging. After all, it’s estimated that the total cost of overweight/obesity in the U.S. approaches $100 billion annually, with about half of that spent in preventive, diagnostic and treatment services.

What’s Covered and What’s Not

Deducting weight loss expenses from taxes isn’t new for Americans. But in the past, we could do it only if weight loss was undertaken at a physician’s direction to treat other diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. The difference now: The IRS recognizes obesity itself as a disease worth treating.

Thus, American taxpayers may deduct the cost of weight loss programs without having to show that the weight loss was undertaken to treat another disease.

An individual who has been diagnosed as obese by a physician may deduct the cost of “diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention,” according to the IRS.

Weight loss programs, behavioral counseling, pharmaceuticals and surgery all qualify with one caveat. As always, medical expenses of any kind are deductible only after they exceed 7.5% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income and if they are not reimbursed by insurance. If you meet that criteria for 1999 or 2000 (and 1998 if you have an extension to file), you can amend those returns.

On the other hand, weight loss expenses for cosmetic reasons or general good health are not deductible nor are personal trainers, health club memberships or diet- related foods.

Bottom line: The new IRS rules are most likely to benefit only those who have a sizeable amount of other unreimbursed medical expenses that can piggyback onto weight loss expenses to bring total deductions above 7.5% of adjusted gross income.

Not Just Weight Loss

While we at Green Mountain are happy to see the government taking steps to support individuals’ efforts to take charge of their health, we know it’s just a beginning. The next steps need to go further to identify standards for treatment. A weight loss program should have documented that it works before it could qualify as a deductible expense. (See below “Choosing a Weight Loss Program.)

In case that ever happens, we want to state it loud and clear now: When it comes to measuring success, a smaller body size may not always be part of the picture. And if it is, it still may not be the most important part. What counts most is not whether a body qualifies as obese on a weight chart, or whether a person reaches “ideal” weight (whatever that is). Instead, what counts is whether that body, whatever its size, is generally considered healthy in terms of physical and emotional well-being, and supports its inhabitant in her life aims.

Still, the new IRS regulations are a start. And if they can help women along the path to health, fitness and increased self-esteem, we say good. It’s about time. And certainly, most of us will take all the help with our taxes we can get!

Choosing a Weight Loss Program

Obviously, we at Green Mountain encourage you to choose non-diet approaches that don’t focus on weight loss per se, but instead help you build your physical and mental strength to make choices that are in your best interests. Ask these questions about any weight loss program you consider.

Does the program focus on weight loss as an end in itself, or is weight loss recognized as only a part of achieving health and wellness for some people? If weight loss is the ultimate goal, we can get easily sidetracked with quick schemes that may lead to quick weight loss. Unfortunately, the weight regain is often even faster.

Is the food and eating advice restrictive? When choice is absent, deprivation often takes us in the opposite direction than desired. It’s a set-up for overeating at some point. Look for programs that help you build your internal ability to choose foods that support well-being, and your internal ability to decide how much you need. Think twice about any advice that recommends you avoid specific types of foods, especially major food groups. If you follow it, you might set up cravings that lead to overeating.

Is enjoyable physical activity an integral part of the program? Research shows that physical activity is one of the key factors in helping people keep lost weight off. And after all, why go to all the trouble to lose it if you’re just going to gain it back again? Been there, done that…time for a different approach.

Is there any peer-reviewed, published research that measures the program’s effectiveness? In the weight loss field especially, lots of claims abound. But research that shows effectiveness is fairly sparse. Require it.

Whose program is it anyway? Check the credentials and experience of the people who have developed and are offering the program. But remember – academic or professional degrees don’t always guarantee competence. Thoroughly check out what’s being offered, and weigh it against your own experience. If you’ve been at this long enough, you can probably easily recognize hucksters. If you’ve got questions you can’t answer, get the opinion of a health professional you trust.

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