BACKGROUND:Beneficial effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on health outcomes have been supposed in previous studies. OBJECTIVES:Aim of this study was to clarify the association between vegetarian, vegan diets, risk factors for chronic diseases, risk of all-cause mortality, incidence and mortality from cardio-cerebrovascular diseases, total cancer and specific type of cancer (colorectal, breast, prostate and lung), through meta-analysis. METHODS:A comprehensive search of Medline, EMBASE, Scopus, The Cochrane Library and Google Scholar was conducted. RESULTS:Eighty-six cross-sectional and 10 cohort prospective studies were included. The overall analysis among cross-sectional studies reported significant reduced levels of body mass index, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and glucose levels in vegetarians and vegans versus omnivores. With regard to prospective cohort studies, the analysis showed a significant reduced risk of incidence and/or mortality from ischemic heart disease (RR 0.75; 95% CI, 0.68 to 0.82) and incidence of total cancer (RR 0.92; 95% CI 0.87 to 0.98) but not of total cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, all-cause mortality and mortality from cancer. No significant association was evidenced when specific types of cancer were analyzed. The analysis conducted among vegans reported significant association with the risk of incidence from total cancer (RR 0.85; 95% CI, 0.75 to 0.95), despite obtained only in a limited number of studies. CONCLUSIONS:This comprehensive meta-analysis reports a significant protective effect of a vegetarian diet versus the incidence and/or mortality from ischemic heart disease (-25%) and incidence from total cancer (-8%). Vegan diet conferred a significant reduced risk (-15%) of incidence from total cancer.