The analyses of large epidemiological databases have suggested that infants and children who show catch-up growth, or adiposity rebound at a younger age, are predisposed to the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases later in life. The pathophysiological mechanisms by which these growth trajectories confer increased risks for these diseases are obscure, but there is compelling evidence that the dynamic process of catch-up growth per se, which often overlaps with adiposity rebound at a younger age, is characterized by hyperinsulinemia and by a disproportionately higher rate in the recovery of body fat than lean tissue (i.e. preferential 'catch-up fat'). This paper first focuses upon the almost ubiquitous nature of this preferential 'catch-up fat' phenotype across the life cycle as a risk factor for obesity and insulin-related complications - not only in infants and children who experienced catch-up growth after earlier fetal or neonatal growth retardation, or after preterm birth, but also in adults who show weight recovery after substantial weight loss owing to famine, disease-cachexia or periodic dieting. It subsequently reviews the evidence indicating that such preferential catch-up fat is primarily driven by energy conservation (thrifty) mechanisms operating via suppressed thermogenesis, with glucose thus spared from oxidation in skeletal muscle being directed towards de novo lipogenesis and storage in white adipose tissue. A molecular-physiological framework is presented which integrates emerging insights into the mechanisms by which this thrifty 'catch-up fat' phenotype crosslinks with early development of insulin and leptin resistance. In the complex interactions between genetic constitution of the individual, programming earlier in life, and a subsequent lifestyle of energy dense foods and low physical activity, this thrifty 'catch-up fat' phenotype--which probably evolved to increase survival capacity in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle of periodic food shortages--is a central event in growth trajectories to obesity and to diseases that cluster into the insulin resistance (metabolic) syndrome.