Several studies have demonstrated that poor early nutrition, followed by growth compensation, can have negative consequences later in life. However, it remains unclear whether this is attributable to the nutritional deficit itself or a cost of compensatory growth. This distinction is important to our understanding both of the proximate and ultimate factors that shape growth trajectories and of how best to manage growth in our own and other species following low birth weight. We reared sibling pairs of zebra finches on different quality nutrition for the first 20 d of life only and examined their learning performance in adulthood. Final body size was not affected. However, the speed of learning a simple task in adulthood, which involved associating a screen colour with the presence of a food reward, was negatively related to the amount of growth compensation that had occurred. Learning speed was not related to the early diet itself or the amount of early growth depression. These results show that the level of compensatory growth that occurs following a period of poor nutrition is associated with long-term negative consequences for cognitive function and suggest that a growth-performance trade-off may determine optimal growth trajectories.