Vegetarians, who do not eat any meat, poultry or fish, constitute a significant minority of the world's population. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume dairy products and/or eggs, whereas vegans do not eat any foods derived wholly or partly from animals. Concerns over the health, environmental and economic consequences of a diet rich in meat and other animal products have focussed attention on those who exclude some or all of these foods from their diet. There has been extensive research into the nutritional adequacy of vegetarian diets, but less is known about the long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. We summarise the main findings from large cross-sectional and prospective cohort studies in western countries with a high proportion of vegetarian participants. Vegetarians have a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity and a lower risk of IHD compared with non-vegetarians from a similar background, whereas the data are equivocal for stroke. For cancer, there is some evidence that the risk for all cancer sites combined is slightly lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians, but findings for individual cancer sites are inconclusive. Vegetarians have also been found to have lower risks for diabetes, diverticular disease and eye cataract. Overall mortality is similar for vegetarians and comparable non-vegetarians, but vegetarian groups compare favourably with the general population. The long-term health of vegetarians appears to be generally good, and for some diseases and medical conditions it may be better than that of comparable omnivores. Much more research is needed, particularly on the long-term health of vegans.