Converging lines of evidence from epidemiological studies and animal models now indicate that the origins of obesity and related metabolic disorders lie not only in the interaction between genes and traditional adult risk factors, such as unbalanced diet and physical inactivity, but also in the interplay between genes and the embryonic, fetal and early postnatal environment. Whilst studies in man initially focused on the relationship between low birth weight and risk of adult obesity and metabolic syndrome, evidence is also growing to suggest that increased birth weight and/or adiposity at birth can also lead to increased risk for childhood and adult obesity. Hence, there appears to be increased risk of obesity at both ends of the birth weight spectrum. Animal models, including both under- and overnutrition in pregnancy and lactation lend increasing support to the developmental origins of obesity. This review focuses upon the influence of the maternal nutritional and hormonal environment in pregnancy in permanently programming appetite and energy expenditure and the hormonal, neuronal and autocrine mechanisms that contribute to the maintenance of energy balance in the offspring. We discuss the potential maternal programming 'vectors' and the molecular mechanisms that may lead to persistent pathophysiological changes resulting in subsequent disease. The perinatal environment, which appears to programme subsequent obesity, provides a potential therapeutic target, and work in this field will readily translate into improved interventional strategies to stem the growing epidemic of obesity, a disease which, once manifest, has proven particularly resistant to treatment.