The Dietary Requirements of Cichlids

Diet is important, irrespective of which fish species we deal with. For Cichlid-keepers, however, diet becomes extremely important — not only because we want to keep our fish alive and displaying at their best — but specifically because we sometimes choose to mix species in our tanks in ways that would not necessarily occur in nature. It is therefore important that you understand what dietary group or groups your fish belong to, and then to feed them accordingly. Let us therefore dispel myths and hear-say, and try to learn how to feed our Cichlids correctly.

Cichlids can be broken down into four dietary groups:

  • Predators, which are often piscivorous, meaning they are fish eaters
  • Micro-predators, which feed on small invertebrates, or plankton
  • Omnivores, which feed on whatever is offered 
  • Grazers, who in their natural habitat feed in and on algae ‘Aufwuchs’ and therefore are considered to be mainly herbivores.

However, in nature, diet is much more complex than that. ‘Carnivore’, ‘herbivore’, ‘omnivore’ and ‘piscivore’ are just generalised labels of our own making. Actually, carnivorous fish need some vegetable matter in their diet, while the reverse is equally true for herbivores – and in nature, they get it. In truth, natural diets contain a variety of everything available as a food source, and all species will at some or other time make use of some, if not all of them. Likewise there is often some or other seasonal glut, especially when it rains and waters flow into the Lakes. No Cichlid ever ignores such opportunity! Overall, Cichlids in their natural habitat will feed on anything tasty that comes along.

For this reason most Cichlids will accept a variety of prepared commercial foods such as flakes, pellets, freeze-dried, and frozen foods, and do well. So, what about live foods? With captive bred African Cichlids, it’s usually unnecessary to feed live foods, as they are conditioned to commercial foods, although many hobbyists insist that live foods not only increase activity and colouration, it helps their fish spawn. In my opinion, live foods, such as newly hatched brine shrimp, should be fed only sparingly, as an occasional treat. The only time it is really necessary to offer live foods, such as brine shrimp, is when you are acclimatising wild-caught adults of predatory or micro-predatory species to your aquarium.

However, there is one very important difference between nature and aquaria that all aquarists find difficult to overcome:

In nature there are no set breakfast, lunch and dinner times. In the Lakes Cichlids feed all the time, whenever food is available, and on whatever is offered. It is this difference we find most difficult to simulate in our aquaria, irrespective of which fish species we keep.  But this is also a very misleading premise if we do not think it through properly!

There is, in fact, really no problem at all, because in nature, most cichlids rely heavily on foods with lots of fibre, such as blue-green algae and organic detritus. Even though these foods constitute the majority of their diet, they actually supply very little ‘food value’ per gram. As a consequence, in nature Cichlids must eat continuously in order to meet their metabolic needs. And since nature has hard-wired this ‘no-limits’ feeding pattern into Cichlids, they will instinctively attempt to do the same in your aquarium. However, you are feeding your Cichlids with food that is superior in nutritional value to anything they could ever get in their natural habitat, and on top of that, foods with a much higher protein content too!


Grazing Metriaclima estherae


So even if nature has produced your Cichlids with a ‘no-limit, eat-when-you-can’ instinct, YOU, in your position as keeper of a captive environment must police your Cichlids’ diet in order to ensure their well-being – and not allow them to overeat. The ideal way to do this is to feed very sparingly, but several times during the day. That of course does not fit in with human timetables. So the best you can do is to feed at least twice a day.

Herbivorous cichlids, in particular should be properly fed with the correct diet, as they have long intestinal tracts. They are therefore susceptible to intestinal problems if their dietary need are not met. This is especially true of the Mbuna, whose digestional tracts are specifically adapted for the consumption of vegetable matter and extracting the proteins and carbohydrates from the hard-to-digest algae.  Unlike cows, these fish have only one stomach and a very long intestine — 4x their body length. It is therefore a good idea to occasionally fast these fish, as this allows them to purge their intestines on a regular basis. Use caution when doing this, because as we all know, hungry Cichlids are aggressive cichlids. If they are generally well-fed, this should not be a problem.

Pay even more attention if you keep fish from the dietary group that falls under the ‘predators’, because in the wild these cichlids eat only occasionally, since they prey on very scarce food sources, but with a high protein content.

There are a few basic rules to follow when feeding your Cichlids:

  • First, feed an appropriate diet. If a fish is primarily herbivorous, its staple diet must consist of vegetable based foods, such as spirulina flakes or pellets. Vegetables like peas, spinach, lettuce, cucumber and even some fruits in small amounts are wonderful treats!
  • Second, offer variety. Feeding any fish only one type of food is cruel. Imagine eating only steak for as long as you live. It may be great for a few days, but it soon becomes boring. And while it contains one of the most important building clocks, namely protein, your health will fast deteriorate without the addition of other equally important nutrients.
  • Third, try to feed foods that are high in pigments like carotene and the like, as it will help maintain the vibrant colouration of your fish, especially if their colours contain yellow, orange, or red. The colour pigments derived from food are the same pigments that are deposited in the skin of the fish. If you want to know more about pigment food and their influence on the colours of your fish, there is an excellent article on the subject here 
  • Feed your fish lots of Spirulina! In fact, Spirulina should form almost 70% of their diet. Spirulina is now commonly sold in fish stores and health shops because of its outstanding nutritional benefits. It contains high levels of easily absorbed anti-oxidants, including chlorophyll, beta-carotene, and phycocyanin. In addition, it also has high levels of iron, vitamin B-12 and chromium, which is  useful for metabolising sugars. Furthermore, Spirulina is 65-70% protein. Consequently, you do not have to feed your fish lots of frozen foods or fish meal in an effort to get them their protein.
  • Finally, go light on the brine shrimp. Make it only an occasional treat! Brine shrimp is not ‘nutrient dense’, meaning is does not contain much nutritional value, and an oversupply can be a factor in the feared illness called ‘Malawi Bloat’, primarily because of the long digestive tracts of Cichlids, and the hard exoskeleton of the shrimp. However, it does make an excellent first food for fish that initially show no interest in prepared foods. Usually they learn by example, and should soon join in feeding on whatever you offer.
  • The safest treats for your herbivores are those which are predominantly vegetable-based, such as peas, zucchini, carrots, spinach, and romaine lettuce, but take care that these are organically produced and free of pesticides. Because of the beta-carotene, canthaxanthin, and other vitamins they contain, they help towards maintaining the high colouration of your fish, and at the same time , because of their high fibre content, also help to reduce incidences of intestinal blockages caused by  having partaken in some other, less suitable foods in a Cichlid community tank. If you freeze these vegetables and then thaw them, they will soften up and can be consumed quite readily.
  • Your cichlids should always appear HUNGRY. If they do not show excitement at being fed, they are either sick or overfed, or even worse, possibly both! Stop feeding immediately and look for the cause. If they are simply overfed, fast them for a day. If there are sick fish, remove them and take the appropriate action. 

Foods to Avoid:

  • Tubifex. This is a thin, red worm that lives in mud of rivers, and is usually collected from polluted rivers. By feeding Tubifex to your fish, you are exposing them to the diseases these worms may be carrying. 
  • Red Mosquito Larvae, otherwise known as blood worms. As the origins of the source can never be adequately pinned down, I recommend that you refrain from feeding bloodworm. You may have done so without incident, but I would personally not take the chance!
  • Beef Heart. Fishes are unable to utilize fat from warm-blooded animals for energy use. As fish are cold-blooded, their body temperature rises and falls with their surrounding environment. Therefore the need fat both both an energy reserve, as well as an energy resource and they store fat in their bodies just as we do. However, the only fat they can utilise are fats with a low melting point, especially if their surrounding water around them is cold, as often happens in winter.The fats derived from warm-blooded animals have a high melting point – and thus makes it impossible to be used by your fish. Consequently, it will be stored in their livers, where it accumulates over time, eventually leading to cirrhosis. Steroid use in agriculture is also a concern and could cause sterility in your fish!
  • Any food meant for American cichlids. These foods are very dangerous for African cichlids because the two classes of fish have totally different dietary needs.

Foods you should only feed sparingly:

  • Pelleted food. Some pellets tend to swell when put in water. Therefore, you should soak them briefly before feeding them to your fish, in order to avoid their swelling inside your fish. Un-soaked pellets may lead to distended and irritated bellies, and even worse, may constipate your fish. 
  • Flake food. If you feed only twice a day, don’t feed more than your fish can consume in 1-2 minutes (not 5!) If you feed more often,  reduce the amount to what can be consumed in 30 seconds. This latter method is more natural, because in the wild, cichlids are nibbling on algae, plankton, or artemia throughout the day and it also helps to prevent  digestive problems.
  • Frozen food. Any food that is high in animal protein, such as krill, brine shrimp, daphnia, plankton, bloodworms, and micro-worms should always be used very sparingly. And –  for herbivorous fish, they should not be used at all! Frozen foods have been decisively proven as one of the causative factors in ‘Bloat’. Frozen  foods are not necessary to produce great color and healthy fish — but they can stimulate spawning,  so that is possibly the best time to use them. Nevertheless, use frozen foods only as a supplemental treat, and not as a staple diet.  Always defrost them before feeding. Aggressive Cichlids may otherwise snatch whole blocks and end up sick the next day!

Since food is one of the factors that can lead to aggression, it is logical that much aggression can be reduced by keeping your fish well fed. The basic aggression instinct exists to ensure that each Cichlid obtains enough food. When a fish is hungry, it will be more aggressive. Therefore, I usually recommend that you feed your Cichlids preferably three times, but at least twice a day. Be very careful with the amounts you feed. Your fish should eat greedily and consume everything within a minute or two, leaving nothing behind. Occasionally, arrange for a day off, and fast your fish for a day.

You need to be extremely careful when feeding this frequently — newbies are often told to feed community fish only once a day, as much as the fish can eat in five minutes,  and as a result overfeed their fish. That is why I so dislike those ‘so-called rules’. Despite the fact that hungry Cichlids are more aggressive Cichlids, it is better to err on the side of caution and feed them less rather than more. On the other hand, I have seen countless pictures of cichlids on the internet where the fish appear almost emaciated. Under-fed fish are always more prone to health problems, so do not ever starve your fish. We are looking for balance here. You want your fish to have balanced, well-proportioned bodies true to their type,  and an eagerness and vitality to match. Since most Cichlids have an enormous appetite and are easily fed, the one sure sign that you are overfeeding, is that they appear full, and do not really eat with gusto. A healthy and properly fed Cichlid will always appear VERY hungry.

Finally remember that FOOD may be at the very heart of all the problems you can possibly experience with Cichlids. The decomposition of improperly digested, or improperly excreted foods can irritate the intestinal walls of fish, stress them, make them ill and give an invasive parasites a foothold. This often comes about when primarily herbivorous, algae-scraping Cichlids are fed high protein foods such as bloodworms, or pellet and flake foods containing large quantities of fish meal. Deadly illnesses such as ‘Bloat’ are now known to be the direct consequence of incorrect, or over-feeding.  Save yourself this heartbreak!

The other reason why fish fall ill, albeit less directly,  is also due to overfeeding, because over-feeding causes heightened excretion, which causes the nitrate levels in your tank to rise. In fact, the nitrates in your tank are almost in direct correlation to how much you feed. If the filtering system of you tank cannot handle the demands placed upon it by feeding your fish twice, or several times a day, you must either cut back on the amount of food fed, or the number of fish you keep — or install additional filtration combined with more frequent water changes.  Again, feed with foresight and save yourself much heartbreak!


We all now know that we need to feed quality foods if we want our fish to thrive and breed. However, it may surprise you to hear that feeding frequency often plays a very big role in successful spawning and breeding. Over-fed fish seldom breed. The only sensible and healthy remedy is to reduce the amount you feed in order to get your fish into condition. If you mature adults still show no interest in spawning, reduce the frequency of feeding to just once a day, but stick to quality foods and up the protein content without increasing the amount you feed.(Think Spirulina) Then do a small water change. You should soon see a dramatic increase in the frequency of spawning, and the broods will in all likelihood be larger than usual. The reason for this turnaround is that fish that are fed less are more active, as well as more actively engaged.

A by-product of this kind of feeding regime is that your fish are less susceptible to disease — proving the old adage: ‘A hungry fish is a HEALTHY fish’.

Feed your fish wisely, keep them keen for more, and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your wisdom in the form of an eager, vitally healthy, brilliantly coloured community of fish!


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