Undernutrition in fetal life programmes risk of obesity and the metabolic syndrome in adult life. Rat studies indicate that exposure to a maternal low-protein diet throughout fetal life establishes a preference for high-fat foods. The present study aimed to assess the effect of low protein exposure during discrete 7-day periods of gestation upon feeding behaviour (full gestation 22 days). Pregnant rats were fed control or low-protein diet, with low-protein feeding targeted at day 0–7 (LPEarly), day 8–14 (LPMid) or day 15–22 (LPLate) of gestation. At 12 weeks of age, offspring were placed on a macronutrient self-selection regimen. Prenatal protein restriction programmed feeding behaviour in female, but not male, offspring. Among females, all low-protein exposed groups consumed less fat than the control group (P<0.05). Male offspring showed no changes in feeding behaviour. In males and females fed a low-fat chow diet, there were metabolic differences between the groups. LPEarly and LPLate males had greater hepatic glycogen stores than control animals. There were no differences in the size of abdominal fat depots in either male or female rats exposed to low-protein diet at any point in gestation. The data suggest that programming of feeding behaviour is likely to be gender-specific and dependent upon the timing of nutrient insult in fetal life. This work may have implications for the development of the metabolic syndrome.

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