Recent sociological research in the field of lay health and illness beliefs is reviewed and discussed in the light of nursing practice in health promotion. How the findings might deepen nurses' understanding of difficulties in adhering to desired health behaviours is outlined. The distinctions between 'public' and 'private' accounts of health, the 'taken-for-grantedness' of health, the emotive nature of health and the difficulty of accessing 'unpolluted' lay views of health is considered. The implications for nurses working in health promotion are discussed. There is a need for further research into the relationship between health beliefs and behaviour, the health beliefs of various groups within society and a need to examine how health beliefs arise and change.