Mbuna Cichlid Food, Diet & Feeding Guide

Mbuna Cichlids have become increasingly popular among more experienced aquarists lately. Part of it is due to their exclusive vibe since Mbuna cichlids only live in Lake Malawi and nowhere else.

These cichlids have remained stranded in the Lake, presumably around 2 million years ago, leading to the emergence of over 700 different species currently living in the lake. Researchers suggest there might be more than 1,000.

The problem is that Mbuna cichlids are the group with more endangered species than any other category of vertebrates on Earth. Another thing that contributes to the species’ appeal.

Another reason for their popularity has to do with these cichlids’ behavior and lifestyle. They are very aggressive for the most part and won’t integrate in community tanks since they attack everything that moves in their territory. They also prefer to live in cave systems and will rarely swim to the water’s surface, usually only if they need to eat.

So, if you’ve decided that Mbuna cichlids are perfect for you, there are several things to keep in mind before getting them:

  • Mbuna cichlids are extremely territorial fish and don’t do well in community aquariums
  • Males are particularly aggressive towards one another and will often fight to the death
  • Mbuna cichlids need more horizontal than vertical space since they spend most of their time around the substrate
  • They will especially display aggression towards similar-looking fish
  • These cichlids don’t mind overcrowding; if anything, it helps them remain calmer and more comfortable since they live in larger groups in the wild
  • This species is very sensitive to changes in water parameters, so you need frequent water changes of up to 40% weekly
  • Mbuna cichlids have a varied diet, as they will eat anything, but they’re also sensitive to inadequate feeding

While all these issues can affect your Mbuna cichlids in given scenarios, I consider the latter to be of utmost importance. How and what your Mbuna cichlids eat will define their lifestyle over the years and can make or break them. Let’s see how Mbuna cichlids are different than other species when it comes to feeding.

What do Mbuna Cichlids Eat?

Wild Mbuna cichlids eat something called aufwuchs or periphyton for an easy pronunciation. This is a German word for ‘overgrowth’ or ‘surface growth,’ and it refers to the organic composition that covers the rocks and coral system around Mbunas’ natural habitat.

Aufwuchs consists of a blend of algae, detritus worms, cyanobacteria, various microbes and microorganisms, and even small crustaceans. All Mbuna cichlids scrape and feed off of this organic matter that provides them with all the nutrients they need.

This feeding behavior tells us one thing – Mbuna cichlids prefer food sources rich in plants rather than protein. Mbuna cichlids display specialized feeding behavior compared to the bulk of cichlids worldwide. The latter have developed more varied diets, leading many species to become omnivorous, carnivorous, herbivorous, etc. The difference is that most cichlids can adapt to incorporate many foods in their menu in captivity, unlike the Mbuna.

Although they are officially omnivorous, Mbuna cichlids prefer a more herbivorous-leaning diet, as too much protein can actually hurt them. It also matters where they’re getting their protein from since some sources are known to cause Mbuna cichlids health problems, like bloodworms.

But more on this later on. First, let’s discuss some important aspects about Mbuna feeding.

Are Mbuna Cichlids Carnivores, Herbivores, or Omnivores?

There are 3 larger categories of Mbuna cichlids living in Lake Malawi, each including numerous species. There are the Mbuna, the Peacocks, and the Haplochromines or Haps.

Out of the 3, the Mbuna cichlids are bottom-dwellers, rarely leaving their cave system in the deeper areas of Lake Malawi. Since they don’t move much, Mbuna cichlids prefer to feed on algae most of their time, which makes their diet more herbivorous in nature.

The other 2 groups, the Haps and the Peacocks like to live in more open areas and display a more diverse diet. These cichlids will enjoy their occasional animal-sourced proteins from worms, crustaceans, insects, etc. These cichlids mostly rank as omnivorous, but overall, all cichlids fall in the same category. They are all omnivorous but prefer a more herbivorous-oriented diet with only occasional animal protein.

That’s because Mbuna cichlids have poor digestive systems that can’t cope with large amounts of protein or animal fat. With Mbuna cichlids, knowing what not to feed them is often more important in the big picture.

3 Best Commercial Food for Mbuna Cichlids

So, knowing that these cichlids are very sensitive about their diets, what should you feed them to provide optimal nutrients and avoid digestive issues at the same time. You can either personalize their diet and provide them with homemade food or purchase commercial fish food for a more balanced diet overall. I suggest a mix of the 2 for the best results.

Here are 3 of the most balanced fish food options you can buy right now:

– Ron’s Cichlid Premium Fish Food

These are pellets containing a mix of spirulina, shrimp, crustacean meat, plankton, krill, and other ingredients, making them ideal for cichlids. They are particularly easy to digest, which is already a major plus, knowing how sensitive Mbunas’ digestive system is.

These slow-sinking pellets have a moderate protein content and provide Mbuna cichlids with a balanced diet and optimal nutrient intake. They also lack any artificial pigments, hormones, or any other potentially harmful additives, which is particularly important for Mbuna cichlids.

– Ocean Nutrition Cichlid Vegi Flakes

This formula mixes vegetables with protein sources like salmon, krill, clams, herring, and brine shrimp to provide Mbuna cichlids with a balanced and nutritious diet. The interesting aspect about Ocean Nutrition is that it caters to all Mbunas, no matter the species or category they belong to.

These flakes are flavorful nutritious and will protect your Mbunas’ digestive system along the way. This will result in less fish waste since the fish will absorb more nutrients than from their regular foods.

– Northfin Food Veggie Formula

This option aims at herbivorous fish-only and makes for a great addition to any diverse diet, the type of which Mbunas enjoy. You can feed these pellets to your Mbunas 2-3 times per day, depending on their appetite and how many fish you have.

Some of the core ingredients include garlic, spirulina, and astaxanthin (a carotenoid pigment present in algae and salmon meat). The latter ingredient functions as an antioxidant and has plenty of beneficial effects, including strengthening the immune system.

These 3 food options are ideal for a balanced diet, helping your Mbuna cichlids remain healthy and balanced over years to come.

How to Feed Mbuna Cichlids?

How to feed your Mbuna cichlids is just as important as what to feed them. While most tank fish will only eat once or twice per day at most, Mbuna cichlids require more frequent feeding. Most aquarists feed their Mbunas 3-4 times per day, small portions each time.

There’s an interesting aspect about Mbunas to discuss here. Mbunas live their best lives in large groups and don’t mind overcrowding as much. It’s actually beneficial to them since Mbunas don’t really like open spaces. This has led many aquarists to keep them rather overcrowded, at which point one issue threatens the Mbunas’ wellbeing more than anything else – overfeeding.

Feeding your Mbunas larger quantities of food at a time will result of a lot of leftovers which, when combined with overcrowding, can have devastating consequences. Decaying food will increase ammonia levels and boost the presence of nitrites which can prove fatal to your Mbuna cichlids.

Only feed your cichlids what they can consume within 30 seconds to a minute. If necessary, you can feed them more often to make sure all cichlids get their optimal nutrients.

Frequent feeding will also decrease your Mbunas’ aggressive, as they will feel less inclined to fight over food since food is always available.

How Long Can Mbuna Cichlids Go Without Food?

Healthy adult Mbuna cichlids can go without food for between 7 to 10 days. This is thanks to their evolutionary adaptation to an environment that doesn’t always provide them with the necessary resources. The problem is even more obvious in Mbuna cichlids, compared to other species, since the former love to form massive groups where food competition is the norm.

However, you shouldn’t test your Mbunas. After all, their habitat conditions in captivity are different than in the wild. When living in an enclosed space like an aquarium, they don’t have the option to leave and search for food. So, they will have to hold their ground and spill their dissatisfaction on their brethren.

Starving cichlids are generally violent cichlids, and that’s the last thing you want to see in a large Mbuna group.

Not to mention, young cichlids require more frequent feeding than older ones, with cichlid fry only able to withstand 1 day at most without food. So, if you need to leave for work or enjoy a vacation, always have somebody to feed your Mbunas while you’re gone.

Can Mbuna Cichlids Eat Bloodworms?

Yes and no. Remember when I said that Malawi-descendent cichlids divide into 3 categories? Well, only 2 of them can eat bloodworms, the other shouldn’t. More specifically, cichlids in the Mbuna category display a more herbivorous diet, and they shouldn’t consume bloodworms under any circumstance.

That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t consume protein at all. In fact, some animal protein is necessary in their diet for a balanced nutrient intake.

The problem is that bloodworms contain too much protein, which can cause the Mbuna digestive problems. The most common and dangerous one to mention here is the Malawi bloat. This disorder is specific to Malawi cichlids, hence the name, and has multiple causes, including bacterial infections, stress, and a poor diet.

Some of the disorder’s symptoms resemble those of dropsy, where the fish looks bloated, displays hiding behavior, and manifests lack of appetite. Your sick cichlid may also have lift-up scales, stringy feces, and maybe red markings behind the head. Malawi bloat is often fatal, but the fish can recover with proper care.

The first step in preventing Malawi bloat has to do with keeping the protein intake low for your Mbunas. So, no bloodworms.

If your cichlids belong to any of the other 2 categories, Peacocks or Haps, they can have bloodworms since they have a more natural need for animal protein, but use moderation as an indicator.

I suggest feeding them bloodworms once or twice per week, as treats, not more.

Can Mbunas Eat Mealworms?

Yes, so long as you remember that whatever applies to bloodworms applies to mealworms too. There’s also another aspect that needs mentioning. Where you source these worms is of utmost importance. Wild worms can contain various parasites and bacteria that will end up infecting your cichlids and lead to a variety of health problems.

Malawi bloat is one of them.

To prevent this, always purchase the worms in freeze-dried form or, if you’re really invested in your cichlids’ wellbeing and comfort, grow them at home. You can set up a nice system of live worm cultures with a minimal investment. This will provide you with ready-to-eat worms from a safe and natural source with minimal-to-no downsides.

Just remember that Mbunas don’t need that much protein, so you don’t want to overdo your worm cultures.

Do Mbuna Cichlids Eat Snails?

They sure do. Mbunas aren’t exactly the best tank mates for any snail species, particularly because they end up sharing the same environment. Mbunas like to behave like bottom-dwellers, and tank snails do the same. So, you can see how that will cause some problems along the way.

Mbunas don’t like to share their territory with anyone, especially creatures that they view as food. They will kill and potentially eat any snail they can find, but don’t take this as a sign that snails are an optimal food source for them. Snails can carry a lot of parasites, depending where you got them from.

They are also packed with protein, which can hurt cichlids since this species isn’t famous for its ability to contain its appetite. Like any other cichlid species, the Mbunas display a voracious appetite that will often do them great disservices.

If you really want to see them hunt and kill snails, you can provide them with some treats occasionally, let’s say once every 2 weeks.

Can Mbunas Eat Shrimp Pellets?

Yes, they can. Shrimp pellets are highly nutritious and will provide Mbunas with a lot of protein. Which can also be a problem. Instead of shrimp pellets, I would suggest a mix. Use pellets that contain shrimp meat instead of ones based on shrimps only.

This will minimize the influx of protein and will provide your cichlids with a larger pool of nutrients. Both these benefits are key to preserving your Mbunas’ wellbeing in the long run.

Can Mbuna Cichlids Eat Vegetables and Fruits?

Not only will they eat vegetables and fruits, but they will enjoy them thoroughly. Cichlids belonging to the Mbuna category will display a particular sweet tooth for fruits and vegetables since these make up for most of their wild diet anyway. Except for fruits, though, since not a lot of trees grow in the bottom of Lake Malawi.

However, Mbunas are open to testing out new stuff and enjoy a variety of foods, such as spinach, cucumber, zucchini, lettuce, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, blueberries, etc. When it comes to feeding your Mbuna cichlids homegrown vegetables and fruits, how you serve the food is just as important as the food’s type.

For ease of consumption and digestion, I suggest boiling the vegetables first and mixing them with powdered garlic. Garlic is a particularly palatable additive for fish in general and healthy at the same time.

When it comes to fruits, boiling isn’t necessary, but peeling is. Always peel fruits like grapes and blueberries so your cichlids can consume them easier. You can also try various fruits and vegetables to see which stick.

Can Mbuna Cichlids Eat Meat?

They can, but you shouldn’t feed them meat. When I say ‘they can,’ I actually mean they will eat meat if you give it to them, but they will regret it later on. The Mbunas’ digestive system isn’t designed to consume beef, chicken, or pork.

There’s no reason to feed them any of these protein sources, not even as treats. You already have safer and nutritious options out there like pellets, flakes, freeze-dried foods, and even homemade meals.

Homemade Mbuna Food – Do This When Out of Food

Many people will resort to homemade food recipes for their Mbuna cichlids not because they’ve run out of fish food but because they avoid it completely. While commercial food is more comfortable since it requires minimal preparation, it isn’t always optimal in terms of nutritional content. Some fish food options are even hurtful.

Many fish food products contain rice, soy, potatoes, or wheat, which provide cichlids with minimal-to-no nutritional value. Others even contain toxic components like ferrous chloride, cobalt sulfate, aluminum sulfate, copper sulfate, etc.

In this context, preparing some delicious homemade meals for your Mbuna cichlids can be a breath of fresh air. But what should you feed them?

The recipe to use depends on the type of cichlids you own. Some will prefer different ingredients than others, although the concept remains the same – more vegetables, less protein.

For Malawi-descendant cichlids, rely on ingredients like spinach, peas, seaweed, garlic, and spirulina to prepare a nutritious paste for everyday use. You can boil or bake it and freeze-dry it to save for later. You can also add brine shrimp or bloodworms, but only in small portions for a healthy protein content. You can also go for a veggie-only paste and only offer protein as treats once or twice per week.

As an important note, one-day fasting once per week is necessary to allow your cichlids’ digestive system to reset and purge toxins.


Providing Mbuna cichlids with an optimal diet is easier than novice aquarists think. These fish require a slightly omnivorous diet, with a lot of veggies and moderate-to-small amounts of protein occasionally.

Feed your Mbuna cichlids 3-4 times per day, allow them a fasting day per week, and limit their protein intake, depending on the species. These strategies will keep your cichlids full and satisfied in the long run and minimize their food-related competitive behavior significantly.

And everything that diminishes cichlid aggression is a plus in my book.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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