Small birth weight and excess of early protein intake are suspected to enhance later obesity risk. The present study was undertaken to determine the impact of neonatal diets differing in protein content on growth, body composition and hormonal status of 70-d-old pigs born with normal weight (NW) or small weight (SW). At 7 d of age, male and female suckled piglets were assigned to the NW (approximately 1·4 kg at birth) or SW (approximately 0·99 kg at birth) groups. They were fed milk replacers formulated to provide an adequate protein (AP) or a high protein (HP) supply for 3 weeks. From weaning to 70 d of age, all animals received ad libitum the same standard diet. Growth rates were higher (P < 0·05) in HP piglets than in AP piglets during formula feeding and remained higher (P < 0·05) only in HP male pigs thereafter. No difference in feed consumption was detected between groups during the periods examined. Carcass lipid content and the relative weight of perirenal adipose tissue did not differ between the AP and HP pigs. Whereas plasma leptin concentration was higher (P < 0·05) in HP pigs than in AP pigs with a marked difference in SW pigs, plasma insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I concentration and expression of IGF system genes were not affected by the diets. In summary, a HP intake during the suckling period induced an increase in growth rate that persisted only in male pigs during the post-weaning period. This response was not associated with any difference in adiposity parameters in this period.