Diet contributes to health at all stages of life, from embryonic development to old age. Nutrients, including vitamins, amino acids, lipids and sugars, have instructive roles in directing cell fate and function, maintaining stem cell populations, tissue homeostasis and alleviating the consequences of aging. This Review highlights recent findings that illuminate how common diets and specific nutrients impact cell fate decisions in healthy and disease contexts. We also draw attention to new models, technologies and resources that help to address outstanding questions in this emerging field and may lead to dietary approaches that promote healthy development and improve disease treatments.

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