Aims/hypothesisAdverse events during intra-uterine life may programme organ growth and favour disease later in life. In animals, protein or energy restriction during gestation alters the development of the endocrine pancreas, even though the duration of malnutrition is different. Here, we evaluate the specific effects of both diets during different periods of gestation and the mechanisms underlying the decreased beta cell mass.MethodsPregnant Wistar rats were fed either a low-protein or a low-energy diet during the last week of gestation or throughout gestation. Fetuses and their pancreases were analysed at days 15 and 21 of gestation.ResultsThe low-energy diet reduced the beta cell mass from 21-day-old fetuses by 33 or 56% when administered during the last week or throughout gestation, respectively. Fetal corticosterone levels were increased. At 15 days of fetal age, the number of cells producing neurogenin 3 (NEUROG3) or pancreatic and duodenal homeobox gene 1 (PDX-1) was reduced. Neither islet vascularisation nor beta cell proliferation was affected. The low-protein diet, in contrast, was more efficient in decreasing the fetal beta cell mass when given during the last week of gestation (−53%) rather than throughout gestation (−33%). Beta cell proliferation was decreased by 50% by the low-protein diet, independently of its duration, and islet vascularisation was reduced. This diet did not affect NEUROG3- or PDX-1-positive cell numbers.Conclusion/interpretationAlthough both diets reduced the fetal beta cell mass, the cellular mechanisms and the sensitivity windows were different. Early alteration of neogenesis due to elevated corticosterone levels is likely to be responsible for the decreased beta cell mass in low-energy fetuses, whereas impaired beta cell proliferation and islet vascularisation at later stages are implicated in low-protein fetuses.