It is well established that there is a relationship between patterns of early growth and subsequent risk of development of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Studies in both humans and in animal models have provided strong evidence that the early environment plays an important role in mediating these relationships. The concept of the developmental origins of health and disease is therefore widely accepted. The mechanisms by which an event in very early life can have a permanent effect on the long-term health of an individual are still relatively poorly understood. However a growing body of evidence has implicated a number of candidate mechanisms. These include permanent changes in an organ structure, programmed changes in gene expression through epigenetic modifications and persistent effects on regulation of cellular ageing. Understanding the extent and nature of these processes may enable the identification of individuals at risk of metabolic disease as well as providing insight into potential preventative and intervention strategies.