Education interventions that stimulate complementary feeding practices can improve the nutritional status of children and may protect against future chronic diseases. We assessed the long-term effectiveness of dietary intervention during the 1st year of life on insulin resistance levels, and investigated the relationship between insulin resistance and weight changes over time. A randomised field trial was conducted among 500 mothers who gave birth to full-term infants between October 2001 and June 2002 in a low-income area in São Leopoldo, Brazil. Mother–child pairs were randomly assigned to intervention (n 200) and control groups (n 300), and the mothers in the intervention group received dietary counselling on breast-feeding and complementary feeding of their children during the 1st year of life. Fieldworkers blinded to assignment assessed socio-demographic, dietary and anthropometric data during follow-up at ages 1, 4 and 8 years. Blood tests were performed in 305 children aged 8 years to measure fasting serum glucose and insulin concentrations and the homoeostasis model assessment index of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR). At the age of 8 years, the intervention group showed no changes in glucose and insulin concentrations or HOMA-IR values (change 0·07; 95 % CI −0·06, 0·21 for girls; and change −0·07; 95 % CI −0·19, 0·04 for boys) compared with study controls. Insulin resistance was highly correlated, however, with increases in BMI between birth and 8 years of age. Although this dietary intervention had no impact on glucose profile at age 8 years, our findings suggest that BMI changes in early childhood can serve as an effective marker of insulin resistance.