By JENNIFER LEVITZ And BETSY MCKAY
In hindsight, there were early hints that Boston's citywide challenge to collectively lose one million pounds in a year faced slim odds.
In June, a mere two months after the challenge began, the city kicked off "Fitness on the Plaza," a series of free exercise classes for the citizenry to work off its blubber. But the same week in the same place—City Hall Plaza—Boston tempted the sweet tooth by hosting the annual "Scooper Bowl," billed as the nation's largest all-you-can-eat ice-cream festival, offering delicacies from Rockin' Poppin' Cotton Candy to Hunka Chunka PB Fudge.
"A little mixed messaging," concedes Nick Martin, spokesman for the Boston Public Health Commission, which is now doing some navel-gazing into why Bostonians have shed just 74,597 pounds with only a few months to go until the deadline.
Boston is among the many cities and states around the country doing a gut check these days as they examine the dismal results of mass weight-loss challenges.
For communities, joining together to fight flab is now as American as second helpings of apple pie. With great fanfare, the public is invited to "Cut the Waist," and told "Let's Move!" Citizens get excited about being part of something even larger than themselves—especially in the New Year, as they resolve to start anew by working off the holiday fat.
Politically, governors and mayors find that exhorting voters to go on a diet is far easier on the stomach than, say, pushing a soda tax or junk-food ban.
There have been notable successes. Oklahoma City said last year that it had lost "the equivalent of 100 elephants." But a less celebrated ritual has also emerged: local leaders from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Walpole, Mass., poring over disappointing results, trying to figure out how diets fared so badly.
The excuses are ample: socializing, office birthday parties, child-rearing, resentment at being told by the government to trim down, even a cruddy Red Sox season. "You need comfort food to respond to that," said Kevin Greene, who is 47 and runs a tourist-information booth in Boston.
And then there is the near constant temptation of king-size burgers, thick shakes and other high-calorie foods. "We're immersed in that kind of environment," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group that recently announced several "Xtreme Eating 2013" "dis-honorees"—restaurants that serve gut-busting meals like The Cheesecake Factory's "Bistro Shrimp Pasta." CSPI said that light-sounding dish weighs in at 3,120 calories, more than 1.5 times the recommended daily intake for a moderately active 40-year-old woman.
Donald Evans, the restaurant chain's chief marketing officer, responded, "With more than 200 menu items, the Cheesecake Factory has always been about choices." Many diners like to share their dishes or take home leftovers, and the menu also contains lighter fare, he added.
In the Boston suburb of Walpole, the "Let's Move, Walpole" subcommittee met at Town Hall in June to mull a weighty issue. A challenge to the community to lose 1,000 pounds in three months had flopped. The actual result: a measly 100 pounds had been shed.
"We were all gung ho, and we thought everyone would come along," said health director Robin Chapell.
But some "Let's Move, Walpole" organizers admitted that they, too, had struggled to keep their get-up-and-go, even as they evangelized at local gyms, weight-loss classes and town events.
"I was up and down," said Ann Marie Bielenin, a 63-year-old retiree with cropped gray hair and a hot-pink shirt. "My problem is I like to party hearty."
And saboteurs included Walpole's assistant town accountant, Karen Beaton, who tactically keeps sweets on her counter to make the bill-paying public less grumpy.
"You have to have something as a gimmick because when they pay their water bills, or pay their tax bills, sometimes they're not too happy," she said.
St. Louis's eight-week weight-loss challenge for thousands of city employees last fall drew only about 10% participation, said Ryan Lord, the city's wellness coordinator.
About 500 people lost 1,500 pounds, which averages out to three pounds per person. Some had impressive results, but a good number of people didn't lost any weight at all, or had actually gained, he said.
"You hear excuses left and right," he said. "Oh, I'm on steroid medication. I was on vacation. Vacation is a huge one."
He suspects that in truth, people have too much on their plates. He said he would pop in on colleagues down the hall and catch them tucking into doughnuts. "They're just going at it. And they're the ones signing up for the weight-loss challenge," he said.
Former Louisville, Ky., Mayor Jerry Abramson challenged that city—including himself—to lose 100,000 pounds between March and Labor Day, 2010, but "Lose It, Louisville" resulted in only about 1,000 people shedding 6,000 pounds. "We had no money to really promote it," said Kathy Harrison, spokeswoman for Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness.
Louisville has made more headway by building bike paths, selling healthier foods in low-income areas and a new local ordinance requiring certain restaurants to post calorie counts on on-site menus—"to make the healthy choice the easier choice," Ms. Harrison said.
After being called "America's Fattest City" by Men's Health magazine, Corpus Christi officials issued a one-year, 50,000 pound citywide weight-loss challenge in late 2010, but the program fizzled out, said Angela Gonzalez, a former city liaison to the Mayor's Fitness Council. Like Louisville, the city is now focusing on building more hiking and bike trails.
"There was all kinds of drama," said Ms. Gonzalez, who is 39, and now works in the city's solid-waste department, recalling how a number of people, including her, started but dropped out of a city-sponsored boot camp. One woman got pregnant. A man was in a freak accident in which a fence fell on him. Juggling child-care with exercise classes, Ms. Gonzalez tried to bring her young son to the boot camp, but he threw up on her.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is hoping for firmer results with his statewide weight-loss challenge, kicking off this month. The governor is challenging teams of five to lose a greater percentage of weight than his own team of five state leaders, who collectively weighed in at 1,046 pounds. As of Jan. 22, 1,023 teams had registered for the competition, which ends in May, said Sara Arif, deputy director of communications.
"We want it to be more about changing your habits than just trying to lose weight," she said.
Ms. Arif aims to shed up to 25 pounds. But with the state's busy legislative session now under way, she acknowledges that cutting fat while helping the state slash its own won't be easy. "You have maybe five minutes to eat at your desk, so you grab whatever is available," she said.
A version of this article appeared January 23, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Can a Whole City Stick to a Diet? Fat Chance.