The AIN-93G diets based on soya protein or casein were fed to pregnant Wistar rats from day 3 of gestation and compared for their effects on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome in male offspring. Pregnant rats were randomised to either a casein (C) or soya protein (S) diet (n 12) during gestation only (Expt 1) or during gestation and lactation (Expt 2). Male offspring were weaned to either a C or S diet for 9 weeks (Expt 1) or 15 weeks (Expt 2). In Expt 1, pups born to S-fed dams had higher fasting blood glucose (BG), systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) at week 4, higher blood glucose (BG) response to a glucose administration (P < 0·001) and higher body weight (BW) at week 8 (P < 0·05). In Expt 2, consumption of the S diet throughout gestation and lactation resulted in higher BW (P < 0·05), DBP (P < 0·005) and SBP (P < 0·005) in the offspring. They also had higher homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR; P < 0·05) and plasma homocysteine (P < 0·05) at weaning, higher fasting BG and glucose response to glucose administration (P < 0·005) at week 12 and higher HOMA-IR (P < 0·01) at week 15. Although composition of the weaning diets interacted with the diet of the dams, the latter was the dominant factor in determining metabolic outcomes in the offspring. In conclusion, the S diet, compared with the C diet, when consumed during gestation or throughout gestation and lactation increased the presence of characteristics of the metabolic syndrome in the offspring.