For those who find the cost of losing weight an obstacle on the road to better health, certain weight-loss costs can now be claimed as tax-deductible medical expenses. Some insurance companies may begin including these expenses in their coverage as well.

The Internal Revenue Service now includes obesity as a disease in its own right, making weight loss a deductible medical expense if prescribed by a physician. Weight loss to improve appearance, general health, or sense of well being is not tax deductible. To be eligible for this deduction, someone must be defined as obese by a measure called Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more, which usually means at least 30 to 40 pounds overweight. If you do not know your BMI, ask your physician to calculate it for you, or check material from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) or a variety of internet websites. (To receive AICRs easy-to-use BMI calculator, send a request with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to AICR, 1759 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009.) People who are overweight but not obese can claim weight-loss expenses as a deduction if their doctor prescribes it as part of their treatment for a weight-related health problem like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

To claim this deduction, you need a written referral from your physician, with documentation of your BMI or health problem, as well as receipts for any expenses you plan to deduct. Do not send these materials in with your tax forms; you should keep them on file in case they are requested. In order to claim this deduction, you must submit a tax form that includes itemized deductions, and your medical expenses must exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income.

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To qualify, you do not need your doctor to provide a weight-loss program; a hospital, dietitian, or commercial weight-loss company may provide it. But the IRS specifically states that health club dues, exercise equipment, nutritional supplements and diet foods are not deductible.

Medicare recipients who have diabetes can get nutrition counseling expenses covered by Medicare when it is provided by a qualified nutrition professional enrolled as a Medicare provider. The Medicaid program is administered by individual states, so policies about coverage for nutrition care expenses vary.

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Three employee benefits (Medical Savings Accounts, Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Reimbursement Arrangements) follow IRS guidelines. People with such accounts can seek reimbursement from these programs for costs incurred if they meet the weight or medical qualifications to claim weight loss as a deductible expense.

Most managed-care and traditional insurance companies do not include coverage for weight loss. A recent study found that most plans currently promote fitness through websites, newsletters, programs related to specific weight-related health problems and discounts or other financial incentives for fitness center memberships. Companies have been reluctant to cover obesity because it requires lifestyle changes that require extensive follow-up for success. But with mounting evidence of the high medical costs of obesity, many are beginning to think it could be smart business, if assured of quality weight-loss programs.

Weight loss doesnt have to be expensive. Switching from soft drinks to water, skipping processed snack foods and eating smaller portions can actually save money. And as long as you have a pair of sturdy shoes, walking is cheap, too. If eating less and exercising more doesnt get results, well-chosen professional assistance can be a wise investment; these new financial breaks may make it more affordable.

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