Early nutrition has recently been shown to have pervasive, downstream effects on adult life-history parameters including lifespan, but the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood. Damage to biomolecules caused by oxidants, such as free radicals generated during metabolic processes, is widely recognized as a key contributor to somatic degeneration and the rate of ageing. Lipophilic antioxidants (carotenoids, vitamins A and E) are an important component of vertebrate defences against such damage. By using an avian model, we show here that independent of later nutrition, individuals experiencing a short period of low-quality nutrition during the nestling period had a twofold reduction in plasma levels of these antioxidants at adulthood. We found no effects on adult external morphology or sexual attractiveness: in mate-choice trials females did not discriminate between adult males that had received standard- or lower-quality diet as neonates. Our results suggest low-quality neonatal nutrition resulted in a long-term impairment in the capacity to assimilate dietary antioxidants, thereby setting up a need to trade off the requirement for antioxidant activity against the need to maintain morphological development and sexual attractiveness. Such state-dependent trade-offs could underpin the link between early nutrition and senescence.