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Boston far short of goal to shed 1 million pounds

The mayor inspired Alicia Alves-Goodz of Dorchester, who has lost more than 10 pounds since January. She works out and carefully tracks what she eats.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The mayor inspired Alicia Alves-Goodz of Dorchester, who has lost more than 10 pounds since January. She works out and carefully tracks what she eats.

Last April, Mayor Thomas M. Menino challenged Bostonians to lose a collective 1 million pounds in a year’s time. So far we’ve lost 95,697 pounds. Only 904,303 to go. By April 23.

People, now would be a good time to start that juice fast.

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Menino got the idea for a citywide diet after he met a very overweight 12-year-old boy while giving out Thanksgiving turkeys. “What chance does this kid have?’’ Menino told the Globe. Plus, the mayor liked the idea of camaraderie. “[W]hat is daunting on our own becomes doable when we work together,” he said in a State of the City address before launching the challenge.

Bostonians still have a month to trim down, but maybe the goal was too ambitious. Perhaps a call to gain a million pounds would have better tapped into our strengths. Or to rack up $1 million in parking tickets.

But let’s take a step back and examine the goal. Why 1 million pounds? After all, Corpus Christi, Texas, officials challenged their citizens to lose only 50,000 pounds, and that community — population 308,000 — was so plump that it was branded “America’s Fattest City” by Men’s Health magazine.

Boston, by contrast, ranked fifth on Men’s Fitness magazine’s 2012 list of fittest cities. Even so, the Boston Public Health Commission figured that the city has about 200,000 overweight or obese adults, and if each lost five pounds, we would hit the million-pound goal. But the commission wasn’t going to be picky. Each of our 625,087 residents could lose 1.6 pounds. Or one person could lose . . . a million pounds.

The city is tracking the weight loss through its Boston Moves for Health website , which keeps participants’ information confidential, according to the Health Commission. Those who take part enter an e-mail address, birth date, height, and weight.

Actually, a dieter doesn’t even need to live in Boston. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said she would take a pound of flesh from anyone who “works, plays, or lives” in Boston. So, if you come into town for a Celtics game, and you’ve had the stomach flu, please log onto the city’s site and share your loss.

The city has worked hard to promote Boston Moves for Health, which is funded with $310,000 from corporate donors, $50,000 of which went to marketing. The city has distributed promotional materials in community health centers, run upbeat ads urging people to “join the movement,” and used social media and press events to get the word out. It is also offering free fitness classes and pedometers, deeply discounted memberships to Weight Watchers, coupons for healthy food, community walks, and other incentives to help residents get fit. The good news is that these and similar efforts will continue beyond April 23.

The bad news: Almost a year in, many residents don’t know that by continuing to chow down, they’re shirking their civic duty.

“I had no idea,” said Bill Story, 48, a waiter at the Bristol Lounge. “I’ve got nothing against Menino,” he said as he grocery shopped in Mission Hill, “but I do things independently.”

He glanced at his midsection, noted that he wanted to lose 25 pounds but said that City Hall wouldn’t be his motivation. “I see it every day,” he said of his extra weight.

But Tanika Barton, 36, a personal care attendant from Dorchester, said she would have heeded the mayor’s call — if she had heard it. “I need to lose 30 pounds,” she said cheerfully as she left a Dunkin’ Donuts carrying a bagel and coffee with extra cream.

At least Boston’s not bingeing alone. Corpus Christi never did lose that 50,000. Louisville, Ky., also blew its 2010 diet (goal: 100,000 pounds; weight loss: 6,000 pounds). In Massachusetts, Walpole tried to lose 1,000 pounds last year but dropped only 100.

You can’t blame cities and towns for trying. But without societal change, it’s hard for a whole population — or an individual — to lose weight, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., focused on nutritional education.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The mayor inspired Alicia Alves-Goodz of Dorchester, who has lost more than 10 pounds since January. She works out and carefully tracks what she eats.

“The food environment makes healthy eating like swimming upstream,” she said. “Without major shifts to reasonable portions sizes, more healthy options, and calorie labeling in restaurants, people’s efforts are regularly undermined. People need more than just a diet club or website.”

But there is at least one municipal weight loss success story out there: Oklahoma City, population 592,000, lost a million pounds.

The diet started in 2008, it took four years, and at one point the whole town hit a plateau. Mayor Mick Cornett got the scale moving by teaming with local corporations, and by regularly pushing the diet by posing with large objects — cargo planes, elephants, Santa — to show how much residents had lost or how much was left to go. “The zookeepers pointed out that elephants are big but not unhealthy,” said mayoral aide Steve Hill.

Maybe that’s our excuse: We’re not overweight. We’re just big-boned.

While the Oklahoma City diet has yet to sweep the country, Boston health officials did seek advice from Hill last May, soon after the program launched.

“We learned that a million pounds is an ambitious goal,” said Nick Martin, the health commission spokesman.

The Boston team also got a helpful tip: If the city were to team with local organizations, weight that would have been lost anyway could count toward the municipal goal. Indeed, the majority of the pounds lost locally is weight that was dropped by members of Weight Watchers, local YMCAs, and other groups counting pounds lost by all Boston members, not just those motivated by Menino, Martin said.

Even so, here we are in March, barely thinner. Are we retaining water?

The city offered another explanation, one that will be familiar to many a dieter: It’s the scale’s fault. Or in this case, the website’s fault.

“It’s a time commitment to exercise and an extra time commitment to go to enter how much you’ve lost,” Martin said. “We suspect pounds are slipping through the cracks.”

That’s possible. Last April, Menino also challenged Bostonians to move 10 million miles in a year, a goal that has met with much greater success, Martin added. So far Bostonians have logged a very respectable 8,288,622 million miles.

The real issue is not meeting the attention-grabbing million-pound goal but helping people exercise and eat well, Ferrer said. “The challenge was meant to be inspirational.”

One person who was inspired: the mayor himself. He’s lost more than 20 pounds since last April (and also battled health problems). He may not look like a traditional diet guru, but it was his message that got through to Alicia Alves-Goodz, 31, a medical secretary from Dorchester, who wants to lose 30 to 40 pounds from her 5-foot 1-inch frame.

After hearing Menino’s challenge, she sought out a nutritionist at Dorchester House, a multiservice center, and in turn learned about Weight Watchers’ discounted memberships. “I track everything I eat, down to the water,” Alves-Goodz said, noting that she’s lost more than 10 pounds since Jan. 31.

With the April 23 weight-loss deadline looming like a high school reunion, what are the city’s plans to mark the day? A group weigh-in on an enormous scale? Newly thin residents holding their baggy pants out from their slim waists? Alas, no.

Said the health commission’s Martin: “There isn’t an announcement planned.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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