Chronic diseases that are typical of adulthood may originate in intra-uterine life through inadequate fetal development. The present epidemiological cohort study of 506 healthy children aged 5–8 years evaluated the relationship between birth weight and insulin resistance in an age group that has been assessed in few similar studies. Insulin concentration was determined by chemiluminescence and insulin resistance by the homeostasis model assessment (HOMA). Blood glucose, total cholesterol and fractions (LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol) and TAG concentrations were determined by automated enzymatic methods. Linear regression analysis investigated the relationship between birth weight (assessed as a continuous variable and in three categories: small for gestational age, SGA; adequate for gestational age and large for gestational age) and the HOMA index, using backward stepwise selection and biological models to explain the causal pathway of the relationship. There were negative associations between birth weight (P < 0·001), SGA (P = 0·027) and the HOMA index, and a positive association between waist circumference (P < 0·001) and the HOMA index. Considering the significant associations between birth weight and waist circumference (P < 0·001) and waist circumference and insulin resistance (P < 0·001), we can probably suspect that lower birth weight is a common cause of higher waist circumference and insulin resistance. In summary, the results of the present study showed increased insulin resistance in apparently healthy, young children, who had lower weight at birth and higher measurements of waist circumference. There is a need to develop public health policies that adopt preventive measures to promote adequate maternal-fetal and child development and enable early diagnosis of metabolic abnormalities.