Good nutrition starting in the womb can go a long way towards preventing adult illnesses such as hypertension and heart disease.

Research by Dr Chris Kuzawa, a visiting biological anthropologist, demonstrates ways in which early-life nutrition influences health and disease even in the next generation's adults.

His research in the Philippines found that adults who had grown up relatively undernourished were now battling weight gain and sedentary lifestyles, and corresponding diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Traditionally, hereditary and lifestyle influences were believed to cause disease, said Dr Kuzawa.

But a third influence, that environmental factors subtly alter the way our genes express their function even while in the womb, is increasingly being explored.

Fetuses in poor nutrition environments, for example, experience changes in their hormone system, causing them to respond differently to stress.

The effects linger into adulthood.

Dr Kuzawa and his team at Chicago's Northwestern University hope to work with Auckland University's Liggins Institute to develop ways to treat adult diseases through prevention as early as in neonates.

Institute director Professor Peter Gluckman said medical science was just beginning to understand this "novel, revolutionary idea".

Cultural influences could not be denied in issues such as obesity, but there was increasing evidence that this was also "hard-wired biology", he said.

The institute's research had shown that animals exposed to certain conditions as fetuses wanted to eat more and lacked the urge to exercise.

He said if that was true in humans then the very children you might want to impact with exercise and diet could have difficulties.