Bacteria that colonize the mammalian intestine collectively possess a far larger repertoire of degradative enzymes and metabolic capabilities than their hosts. Microbial fermentation of complex non-digestible dietary carbohydrates and host-derived glycans in the human intestine has important consequences for health. Certain dominant species, notably among the Bacteroidetes, are known to possess very large numbers of genes that encode carbohydrate active enzymes and can switch readily between different energy sources in the gut depending on availability. Nevertheless, more nutritionally specialized bacteria appear to play critical roles in the community by initiating the degradation of complex substrates such as plant cell walls, starch particles and mucin. Examples are emerging from the Firmicutes, Actinobacteria and Verrucomicrobium phyla, but more information is needed on these little studied groups. The impact of dietary carbohydrates, including prebiotics, on human health requires understanding of the complex relationship between diet composition, the gut microbiota and metabolic outputs.