Can Food, Diet Foods, or Weight Loss Programs Be Tax Deductible?

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Question: Can Food, Diet Foods, or Weight Loss Programs Be Tax Deductible?

Scenario #1: Being overweight, even just moderately, greatly impacts arthritic joints. To help your arthritis, your rheumatologist recommends that you control your weight.

Question: When, if ever, can weight loss programs and diet foods be tax deductible?

Scenario #2: Low purine diets may help control gout. Your doctor recommends you follow a low purine diet to treat your gout.

Question: When, if ever, can the costs of a doctor recommended special diet be tax deductible?


According to IRS Publication 502, medical expenses are the costs of diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, and the costs for treatments affecting any part or function of the body. These include the costs of equipment, supplies, and diagnostic devices needed for these purposes. However, medical care expenses must be primarily to alleviate or prevent a physical or mental defect or illness. They do not include expenses that are merely beneficial to general health.

Weight Loss Programs

You can include in medical expenses amounts you pay to lose weight if it is a treatment for a specific disease diagnosed by a physician (such as obesity, hypertension, or heart disease). This includes fees you pay for membership in a weight reduction group and attendance at periodic meetings. You cannot include in medical expenses the cost of a weight-loss program if the purpose of the weight loss is the improvement of appearance, general health, or sense of well-being. You cannot include membership dues in a gym, health club, or spa as medical expenses, but you can include separate fees charged there for weight loss activities.

Diet Foods Or Beverages

According to IRS Revenue Ruling 02-19, allowable deductions for diet foods are now greatly restricted. You cannot include the cost of diet foods or beverages in medical expenses because the diet foods and beverages substitute for what is normally consumed to satisfy nutritional needs. All forms of reduced-calorie foods are excluded.

Deducting Food As A Medical Expense

As a general rule, food is considered a nondeductible personal expense. You cannot include the cost of special foods in medical expenses unless all three of the following requirements are met:

  • The foods do not satisfy normal nutritional needs.
  • The foods alleviate or treat an illness.
  • The need for the special foods is substantiated by a physician.

If you do meet all three requirements for deducting special diet foods, the amount you can include in medical expenses is still limited to the amount by which the cost of the special diet foods exceeds the cost of a normal diet.

Are Special Diets Deductible?

It is unlikely that most special diets, even if recommended by a doctor, such as a low purine gout diet, a low-salt diet, or a heart smart diet would meet the strict qualifications for deduction as a medical expense. These most likely would be considered a substitute for a normal diet, besides, little if any extra cost is incurred over a regular diet.

Food Expenses That May Count As Medical Expenses

What type of expenses are deductible if you meet the qualifications? Expenses such as:

  • The cost difference between a special baby formula over a regular baby formula, if you have a prescription or a certification from the baby's doctor noting the medical need.
  • The extra expenses for treatment of some diseases such as cystic fibrosis or celiac disease.
  • For instance, for those with celiac disease, a condition sometimes associated with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, doctor recommended treatment requires life-long adherence to strict gluten-free guidelines. Gluten is not only found in food items but also in items such as medications, cosmetics and even the glue on the back of envelopes. The "extra" costs to get gluten-free products might be deductible. In addition, the amounts actually spent may be worth the time and trouble to figure and document.How do you document and determine the medical portion? It should be noted, both proper documentation and determining the actual medical portion of these costs can be a true paperwork nightmare. For help, read these articles from that explain the possible pitfalls and process for proper recordkeeping.

Please see IRS Publication 502 for a complete list of medical expenses which may and may not be deducted.

This article is not a substitute for professional accounting services. Please consult a competent tax professional for answers to your specific questions.

Related Resources - Taxes and Arthritis

By Richard Eustice, former tax professional for over 15 years, retired early due to disability from rheumatoid arthritis.

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