The thrifty phenotype hypothesis proposes that the epidemiological associations between poor fetal and infant growth and the subsequent development of type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome result from the effects of poor nutrition in early life, which produces permanent changes in glucose-insulin metabolism. These changes include reduced capacity for insulin secretion and insulin resistance which, combined with effects of obesity, ageing and physical inactivity, are the most important factors in determining type 2 diabetes. Since the hypothesis was proposed, many studies world-wide have confirmed the initial epidemiological evidence, although the strength of the relationships has varied from one study to another. The relationship with insulin resistance is clear at all ages studied. Less clear is the relationship with insulin secretion. The relative contribution of genes and environment to these relationships remains a matter of debate. The contributions of maternal hyperglycaemia and the trajectory of postnatal growth need to be clarified.