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Art Chenoweth

Currently there’s good news and bad news about fitness, in mixed proportions. One item of bad news: those electric belts you strap on which supposedly cause you to lose weight and give you that washboard front turn out to be both painful and useless.

Doctors have studied them and numerous users have provided anecdotal evidence. The belts essentially give the user a series of shocks. This causes the flesh of the belly to retract jerkily. The belt companies promise that 10 minutes of use provides the same muscle work as 600 sit-ups. This supposedly results in an amazing loss of weight and the creation of that desired six pack of abdominal muscles without effort or dieting.

The belts have been prominently and repeatedly touted on television infomercials, with at least four different companies extolling their virtues. Prices have varied widely.

Users complain that wearing the belts is like getting repeated shocks of electricity and the shocks don’t do the job. One investigator estimated that to get the belt turned up high enough to have any effect on the body would be akin to standing in a puddle of water and grabbing an electric fence.

Physicians have chipped in by saying this shock therapy only works on the fatty surface tissue of the abdomen. It does not reach the muscular structure underneath. Such shock treatment does not have much effect on the fatty tissue, so the benefit for weight loss and better muscular structure is certain to be minimal, if there is any benefit at all.

Yet, at their height, the belts sold like crazy. One person I know tried to order one over the phone and was told it would take six weeks for delivery. More recently, one company has reduced the price down to two belts for $20. So it appears the word has gotten around that the belts don’t work and, besides, they hurt.

The experts on weight loss added another touch of gloom to this picture. It wouldn’t matter at all even if the belts would deliver the equivalent of 600 sit-ups in 10 minutes. Sit-ups won’t take off belly fat even if done the conventional way, even if done every day for years. There is only one way to get rid of jelly belly and that’s to consume fewer calories than you burn off through aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging or bicycling. To be really effective, the activity needs to be weight-bearing. Sit-ups will, however, develop muscle, even under the fat.

The U.S. Census Bureau came out with some good news recently. People in the U.S. are eating a more healthful diet than they did 10 years ago, when the previous census was taken. They’re eating substantially less red meat, which is blamed for contributing to high cholesterol, and more fruits and vegetables than they did in the 1990 census.

The amount of red meat we currently eat is measured at 118 pounds a year, compared to 719 pounds of fruits and vegetables. However, we drink 32 gallons of beer, which doesn’t help keep the pounds off.

More good news came from, of all places, the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS now recognizes obesity as a disease that can qualify for a weight-loss expense deduction. Besides offering a tax break, the IRS ruling could influence insurance companies and Medicare to pay for obesity treatment.

This marked an improvement over a previously favorable ruling in 2000. In that year, the government ruled the taxpayer could take a deduction for the cost of a weight-loss program only if a doctor prescribed a program to treat a specific disease, such as diabetes. Now, obesity itself is rated as a disease that will qualify for weight-loss expense deduction.

As usual with the IRS, there are conditions. The taxpayer must be participating in a weight-loss program for medical reasons. Simply joining a gym to look and feel better won’t wash. The program must be under a physician’s guidance and it’s only available when the taxpayer itemizes deductions.

Diet foods are not deductible even if they are part of the weight-loss program. The IRS reasons that people have to eat, and whether or not they eat diet food has no bearing on food being a deductible item. The best news, however, is that it’s not too late to claim the deduction. The new policy applies not only to 2001 taxes, but can be claimed as far back as 1998 by filing an amended return.

Making obesity officially a disease drew the inevitable sly comment from comedian Jay Leno. He said, “That shows what a difference an administration can make. Under Bush, obesity is a disease. Under Clinton, it was just sexy.”