The aim of the present study was to determine the potential long-term metabolic effects of early nutritional programming on carbohydrate utilisation in adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). High-carbohydrate diets were fed to fish during four ontogenetic stages: from the first-feeding stage to the end of the yolk-sac larval stage; from the first-feeding stage to 2 d after yolk-sac exhaustion; after yolk-sac exhaustion for 3 or 5 d. The carbohydrate stimuli significantly increased the body weight of the first-feeding groups in the short term. The expression of genes was differentially regulated by the early dietary intervention. The high-carbohydrate diets resulted in decreased plasma glucose levels in the adult fish. The mRNA levels and enzyme activities of glucokinase, pyruvate kinase, α-amylase and sodium-dependent glucose co-transporter 1 were up-regulated in the first-feeding groups. There was no significant change in the mRNA levels of glucose-6-phosphatase (G6Pase) in any experimental group, and the activity of G6Pase enzyme in the FF-5 (first feeding to 2 d after yolk-sac exhaustion) group was significantly different from that of the other groups. The expression of phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase gene in all the groups was significantly decreased. In the examined early programming range, growth performance was not affected. Taken together, data reported herein indicate that the period ranging from the polyculture to the external feeding stage is an important window for potential modification of the long-term physiological functions. In conclusion, the present study demonstrates that it is possible to permanently modify carbohydrate digestion, transport and metabolism of adult zebrafish through early nutritional programming.