Previously we have reported that maternal malnutrition during lactation programmes body weight and thyroid function in the adult offspring. In the present study we evaluated the effect of maternal protein restriction during lactation upon body composition and hormones related to glucose homeostasis in adult rats. During lactation, Wistar lactating rats and their pups were divided into two experimental groups: control (fed a normal diet; 23 % protein) and protein-restricted (PR; fed a diet containing 8 % protein). At weaning, offspring received a normal diet until they were 180 d old. Body weight (BW) and food intake were monitored. Serum, adrenal glands, visceral fat mass (VFM) and carcasses were collected. PR rats showed lower BW ( − 13 %; P < 0·05), VFM ( − 33 %; P < 0·05), total body fat ( − 33 %; P < 0·05), serum glucose ( − 7 %; P < 0·05), serum insulin ( − 26 %, P < 0·05), homeostasis model assessment index ( − 20 %), but higher total adrenal catecholamine content (+90 %; P < 0·05) and serum corticosterone concentration (+51 %; P < 0·05). No change was observed in food intake, protein mass or total body water. The lower BW of PR rats is due to a reduction of white fat tissue, probably caused by an increase in lipolysis or impairment of lipogenesis; both effects could be related to higher catecholaminergic status, as well as to hypoinsulinaemia. To conclude, changes in key hormones which control intermediary metabolism are programmed by maternal protein restriction during lactation, resulting in BW alterations in adult rats.