Some studies have found a significant relationship between birth weight (BW) and the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) in adulthood, but results were inconsistent. The purpose of this study was to characterize the association between BW and the risk of CHD in adults. Among 144 papers detected by our search, 27 papers provided data on the relationship between BW and CHD, of which 23 papers considered BW as a continuous variable, and 14 articles considered BW as a categorical variable for this meta-analysis. Based on 23 papers, the mean weighted estimate for the association between BW and the combined outcome of non-fatal and fatal CHD was 0.83 [95% confidence interval (CI), 0.80–0.86] per kilogram of BW (P<0.0001). Low birth weight (LBW<2500 g) was associated with increased risk of CHD [odds ratio (OR), 1.19; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.11–1.27] compared with subjects with BW⩾2500 g. LBW, as compared with normal BW (2500–4000 g), was associated with increased risk of CHD (OR, 1.16; 95% CI, 1.08–1.25). High birth weight (HBW⩾4000 g) was associated with decreased risk of CHD (OR, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.81–0.98) compared with subjects with BW<4000 g. In addition, there was an indication (not quite significant) that HBW was associated with a lower risk of CHD (OR, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.79–1.01), as compared with normal BW. No significant evidence of publication bias was present. These results suggest that LBW is significantly associated with increased risk of CHD and a 1 kg higher BW is associated with a 10–20% lower risk of CHD.