There is now clear evidence that the pace and pathway of early growth is a major risk factor for the development of a group of chronic diseases that include coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. This has led to a new 'developmental' model for these disorders. The so-called 'fetal origins hypothesis' proposes that the disorders originate through developmental plasticity, whereby malnutrition during fetal life, infancy and early childhood permanently change the structure and function of the body, a phenomenon known as 'programming'. This paper reviews recent findings in the Helsinki Birth Cohort, which comprises 13 345 men and women born in the city during 1934-1944. There is also an older cohort comprising 7086 people born during 1924-1933. We review the paths of pre- and postnatal growth that lead to later disease. Children who later develop coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes grow slowly during fetal life and infancy but thereafter increase their body mass indices rapidly. Those who later develop stroke grow slowly in fetal life, infancy and during childhood. We also review how the growth of girls during infancy, childhood and at puberty influences chronic disease in the next generation.