The medical expense deduction is broad enough to cover pregnancy tests, braille books and smoking-cessation programs. But it doesn't cover everything you pay to stay healthy, though. Most items the IRS allows involve professional medical services or medically necessary purchases such as prescription drugs. Stuff that's just for good health -- low-cal meals, working out -- is usually disallowed.
Whether you're trying to get in shape or just keep the shape you have, the costs of keeping fit -- yoga classes, gym membership, weight-loss program -- aren't deductible just because they make you healthier or sexier. Even if your doctor gives you a general instruction -- you should lose weight, you should exercise more -- that doesn't make health-club dues or dance class a medical necessity or a tax write-off.
If you join a weight-loss program because your doctor says you need it to treat your high-blood pressure or your heart condition, you have a legitimate write-off. You still can't deduct your gym membership, but separate fees for weight-loss programs at the gym are deductible. Deductions for exercise, fitness programs or swimming classes aren't acceptable unless the doctor recommends them as a specific treatment for a specific health problem.
Eating well is an important part of any get-in-shape project, but it isn't usually deductible. The IRS specifically bans taking a write-off for nutritional supplements unless your doctor prescribes them for a medical condition. Diet foods, low-fat meals and other healthy meals are also a no-go. The IRS says you'd have to buy food to eat anyway, so food isn't in the same category as, say, buying prescription drugs.
If your doctor does mandate you lose weight or take special supplements to treat your health problems, you still may not get the deduction. You have to itemize to claim medical costs. To figure the write-off, add up your total allowed expenses for the year, then subtract 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. Whatever remains is your deduction. If your total is less than 10 percent, you don't get any medical write-off at all.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.