The purpose of this review was to examine the factors that predict the development of excessive fatness in children and adolescents. Medline, Web of Science and PubMed were searched to identify prospective cohort studies that evaluated the association between several variables (e.g. physical activity, sedentary behaviour, dietary intake and genetic, physiological, social cognitive, family and peer, school and community factors) and the development of excessive fatness in children and adolescents (5–18 years). Sixty-one studies met the eligibility criteria and were included. There is evidence to support the association between genetic factors and low physical activity with excessive fatness in children and adolescents. Current studies yielded mixed evidence for the contribution of sedentary behaviour, dietary intake, physiological biomarkers, family factors and the community physical activity environment. No conclusions could be drawn about social cognitive factors, peer factors, school nutrition and physical activity environments, and the community nutrition environment. There is a dearth of longitudinal evidence that examines specific factors contributing to the development of excessive fatness in childhood and adolescence. Given that childhood obesity is a worldwide public health concern, the field can benefit from large-scale, long-term prospective studies that use state-of-the-art measures in a diverse sample of children and adolescents.