We have developed a sheep model to facilitate studies of the fetal programming effects of mismatched perinatal and postnatal nutrition. During the last trimester of gestation, twenty-one twin-bearing ewes were fed a normal diet fulfilling norms for energy and protein (NORM) or 50 % of a normal diet (LOW). From day 3 postpartum to 6 months (around puberty) of age, one twin lamb was fed a conventional (CONV) diet and the other a high-carbohydrate–high-fat (HCHF) diet, resulting in four groups of offspring: NORM-CONV; NORM-HCHF; LOW-CONV; LOW-HCHF. At 6 months of age, half of the lambs (all males and three females) were slaughtered for further examination and the other half (females only) were transferred to a moderate sheep diet until slaughtered at 24 months of age (adulthood). Maternal undernutrition during late gestation reduced the birth weight of LOW offspring (P< 0·05), and its long-term effects were increased adrenal size in male lambs and adult females (P< 0·05), increased neonatal appetite for fat-(P= 0·004) rather than carbohydrate-rich feeds (P< 0·001) and reduced deposition of subcutaneous fat in both sexes (P< 0·05). Furthermore, LOW-HCHF female lambs had markedly higher visceral:subcutaneous fat ratios compared with the other groups (P< 0·001). Postnatal overfeeding (HCHF) resulted in obesity (>30 % fat in soft tissue) and widespread ectopic lipid deposition. In conclusion, our sheep model revealed strong pre- and postnatal impacts on growth, food preferences and fat deposition patterns. The present findings support a role for subcutaneous adipose tissue in the development of visceral adiposity, which in humans is known to precede the development of the metabolic syndrome in human adults.