Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

"I don't eat a hamburger and large chips every day!" A qualitative study of the impact of public health messages about obesity on obese adults

Sophie Lewis1*, Samantha L Thomas1, Jim Hyde2, David Castle3, R Warwick Blood4 and Paul A Komesaroff5

Author Affiliations

1 Consumer Health Research Group (CHaRGe) Primary Care Research Unit, School of Primary Health Care, Monash University, Building 1, 270 Ferntree Gully Rd, Notting Hill, Victoria 3168, Australia

2 Victorian Department of Health, GPO Box 4047, Melbourne, Victoria 3001, Australia

3 Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, PO Box 2900, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia

4 News Research Group, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

5 Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society, Monash University, Department of Medicine, Monash Medical School, Alfred Hospital, Prahran, Victoria 3181, Australia

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:309  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-309

Published: 4 June 2010



We are a society that is fixated on the health consequences of 'being fat'. Public health agencies play an important role in 'alerting' people about the risks that obesity poses both to individuals and to the broader society. Quantitative studies suggest people comprehend the physical health risks involved but underestimate their own risk because they do not recognise that they are obese.


This qualitative study seeks to expand on existing research by exploring obese individuals' perceptions of public health messages about risk, how they apply these messages to themselves and how their personal and social contexts and experiences may influence these perceptions. The study uses in depth interviews with a community sample of 142 obese individuals. A constant comparative method was employed to analyse the data.


Personal and contextual factors influenced the ways in which individuals interpreted and applied public health messages, including their own health and wellbeing and perceptions of stigma. Individuals felt that messages were overly focused on the physical rather than emotional health consequences of obesity. Many described feeling stigmatised and blamed by the simplicity of messages and the lack of realistic solutions. Participants described the need for messages that convey the risks associated with obesity while minimising possible stigmatisation of obese individuals. This included ensuring that messages recognise the complexity of obesity and focus on encouraging healthy behaviours for individuals of all sizes.


This study is the first step in exploring the ways in which we understand how public health messages about obesity resonate with obese individuals in Australia. However, much more research - both qualitative and quantitative - is needed to enhance understanding of the impact of obesity messages on individuals.