Foods and Feeding

By Mike Reed, of

Posted here with license from Mr. Reed, Thank you.

I first became interested in foods and feeding of tropical fishes about 40 years ago. I had been in the hobby only a short time but had become "obsessed" with it in the most wonderful sense of the word. I had read and
memorized every piece of literature I could find and had quickly begun breeding fishes and buying tanks and equipment at a budget-breaking pace. I was infatuated with the whole hobby and had just become editor of Tropical
Fish Hobbyist Magazine, then the only magazine in the field.

Working with Herb Axelrod, Neal Pronek and some of the other leading lights of the field did nothing, of course, but fan the flames of my enthusiasm. I was breeding every fish in sight and raising nice young, but I could not seem to get those great show fish some of the more savvy breeders got. They knew all the tricks and soon shared them with me. The one that I could not afford to duplicate was "lotsa live foods". I lived in a city and could not collect my own live food and the stuff in the stores was just too expensive to feed regularly to large numbers of fishes.

So, I set to work trying to create a food or foods of my own that would grow show fishes. With a degree in biology from the pre-veterinary program at Cornell University, an enormous ego, and an optimistic attitude, I figured had a better chance than most to succeed.  Now, four decades of informal study and experimentation later, I have come to many conclusions. These are reflected in the foods now made and marketed under my name and the beauty, energy, and vitality of my fishes and those of people who feed according to my recommendations. Such people reach me through my company, M. Reed Enterprises. You can come and see what we are about on the internet at

Very little is known about the optimal diet or feeding techniques for ornamental tropicals. As far as I know, the only valid, formal studies on feeding fishes have been done on commercially viable coldwater fishes like trout. Because it was all that was available, the data from these studies were used by those making food for our tropicals in the early years. There have been advancements, of course. But the basic tenets are still in place. However, my informal-but-intense observations indicate to me that what is optimal for commercial coldwater fishes is not optimal for those we keep in our aquariums.

What is the importance of feeding optimally? After all, many fishes do just fine on a variety of fish foods chosen pretty much at random. The fact that this is true is a tribute to those who make commercial fish foods. But doing
just fine is a mediocre goal. I prefer maximizing my fishes' well being and I know that growth, vitality, disease resistance, spawning ability, and every other aspect of life can only be maximized if food provides all that is needed to build new tissue, bolster the immune system, generate energy and strength, and much more.

There are some powerful myths about fish foods. One of them I like to call "the protein game." Right from the beginning the importance of a high-protein diet for fishes has been stressed to no end. Nobody can deny that protein is important. But, did you know that not all protein is equal? This is important when you consider that many fish foods are more than 40 percent protein. But you can raise protein content with lots of different things. For extreme example, hair and feathers are very high in protein, but they are a very poor food. This is because their protein is of low quality and is not very available. Proteins are made up of parts called amino acids. It is the amino acids that living things use extensively. Animals can make some of the amino acids crucial to life themselves. But other of the amino acids they need they can obtain only by eating foods containing them. These amino acids are termed "essential" amino acids by nutritionists. For human beings there are 20 necessary amino acids and nine of them are essential. I have never found any source that tells me how many and which amino acids are essential in fishes, but it is likely that the total number and the number that are essential is about the same as for humans. A high quality source of protein would have all the amino acids needed by an organism, especially the essential ones. And a protein with maximum availability is one that is easily broken down (digested) into its component amino acids by the organism.

Ask any nutritionist and he or she will tell you that the food against which all others are measured for their protein quality and availability is egg. If your protein comes from egg, or a food that measures up well against egg, you need far less of it than you do of other protein sources to get great benefits. For this reason, almost all the foods I feed to my fishes contain egg. Keep in mind that an egg is a kind of primordial cell: There is little difference between the nutrient makeup of a chicken egg, a fish egg, or any other egg.

Then there is the myth about fat content.  Most tropical-fish foods contain only minute amounts of fat. I say you should try to get your fishes eating a diet with at least 6 or 7 percent fat. If you are feeding mainly flakes with 4 or 5 percent fat, keep in mind that these numbers may seem little different from 6 or 7, but on a percentage basis, they are not even close. I think that increasing fat content of the diet is particularly important for breeding fishes. I have found that bringing up the fat level in my feedings means more frequent spawns of more eggs in the fishes I breed. When I talk to other breeders about the subject, I find that many of them have come to the same conclusion independently.

Look for foods that have been supplemented with vitamins, and feed variety not only to keep your fishes interested, but also to be sure you are not missing an important ingredient that only one of the foods may provide. If you can, avoid foods containing preservatives. Some preservatives have not been proved harmful, but why take the chance if you can avoid them. I stopped feeding my fishes any foods with preservatives many years ago. And try not to lose any of the good things a food has to offer. In general, it is probably okay to keep dry foods at average room temperature and humidity for 3 or 4 months without risking much loss of nutritional benefits. Just be sure to cover them after use. If you are going to have them longer, refrigerate them. This should extend their useful lives to at least 6 to 9 months. As I write this, the practice of freezing dry foods has fallen into question. I used to think that freezing these foods kept them in good condition for at least a year and maybe almost indefinitely. Now there are vague rumblings about the freezing process changing the nutritional value of the food in some way. I doubt that this will be proved correct, but you might want to think twice about freezing dry food until somebody shows whether it is harmful or not.

A quick note here about another favorite myth. This one says that fishes do best on and should be fed largely what they eat in nature if possible. There is no denying that feeding them the foods they find in their native waters is good, but it is hardly necessary. Sometimes, under some conditions, it is not even desirable. One major reason this may not be desirable is because duplicating what is "served up" in a tropical river, lake, or sea can get pretty expensive. Substitute foods with high nutritional content can not only be far more affordable but also equal or greater in nutritional value. And keep in mind that many of the species of fishes that hobbyists keep have been bred in captivity for a long time. Their "native" waters are fish-farm breeding ponds and hatchery and home aquariums. This makes their natural foods the very same kind as the ones so many of us commonly feed.

The best technique for feeding fishes is the one that works best to get the most food into them and leaves the least food waste in the tank. I do not know how many times I have heard and read that overfeeding is the major cause of aquarium problems. This is undoubtedly true, but it does not mean we should starve our fishes with paltry servings either. There is an old measure that was bandied about a great deal many years ago: Feed a fish a portion only as big as the black of its eye. That is so absurd that I cannot for the life of me see how it got started. If you fed an adult discus or severum this amount of food for example, you would slowly starve it to death.

I like the advice that, in each feeding, you should only feed your fishes what they will consume in 5 minutes. This is good, but remember that you should do this at least twice a day if possible. But even this guideline has its flaws. First thing to remember is that most fishes will take food in their mouths even if they are so full they cannot eat anymore. So, you must watch as your fishes eat to be sure they are not taking the food in their mouths and then spitting it out.

Even more problematic is the feeding dynamic in the average community tank: Here, the fishes that feed at top get first shot at the food and glom it down quickly. They almost always become full and stop consuming food before the middle feeders do and long before the bottom feeders do. But, you must feed enough for ALL the fishes... as much as it takes for the bottom feeders to stop feeding in 5 minutes. This is VERY tricky, but over time you should learn the amount of food to properly feed the fishes in each of your particular aquariums. To start with, you are better off erring on the side of caution and feeding a bit too little. But slowly, you will adjust until you get it right.

You can help yourself and your fishes by feeding in such a way that the food is introduced into several parts of the tank. That way the top feeders cannot attack it all before it gets to the middle and bottom feeders. And there is the additional advantage that feeding this way keeps any tank bullies from monopolizing the feeding area.

Choosing the very best foods for your fishes is a matter of knowing what their preferences and generally known requirements are. There are good staple foods out there that can be fed to almost any tropical fish, but ideally you will also choose a few other foods for variety and these will be more specifically aimed at meeting the needs of the various fishes you keep. For example, livebearers, some African cichlids and silver dollars will benefit from some food having a high vegetable content. For them, you might add a spirulina food in addition to the staple. Other fishes, like severums, firemouths and jewel cichlids will appreciate an additional food that is a bit meatier, such as earthworm or brine shrimp flakes. Some people who sell foods are happy to help you choose the best ones for your fishes. At my company, I take special pleasure in doing this because it means that we both help a hobbyist and gain a customer.

Something that has long puzzled me is how many people leave their filters running when they feed. Maybe this is convenient, but it also results in much perfectly good food being wasted because it goes into the filter. Worse,
the food clogs the filter up and forces much more frequent filter maintenance. Some people tell me that they do not shut down filtration when they feed their fishes because the good bacteria in the filter will die if the water flow through the filter is stopped. But if you just turn the filter off for the few minutes it takes to feed, this problem does not develop at all. I make sure that all the filters in all the tanks that are fed at the same time are plugged into a single power strip with a switch. Sometimes this requires long extension cords, but it is worth it. I simply throw the switch when I begin feeding the first tank and turn it back on about 5 minutes after feeding the last tank.

Those of us who have been keeping tropicals for decades can remember when the choice of fish foods you could buy was only a small fraction of what is available today. The dizzying number of foods from which to select is great, but it can also be confusing.  And everybody who sells foods says their foods are best. The best foods for your fishes are not only packed with nutrition but also appeal as much as possible to your fishes. This is because one of your goals should be to get your fishes to eat heartily. For various reasons both understood and probably unknown, fishes eat and grow better when outdoors in a pond or lake. Such outdoor fishes also usually have better color and general health than those in our aquariums. In order to help close the growth and health gap between outdoor fishes and those in our aquariums, we should try to feed our fishes foods that they like well enough to eat with gusto. You should determine by trial and error which nutritionally sound foods your fishes like best. Then you can feed those foods and reap the reward of seeing your fishes grow bigger, more active, and more beautiful than they otherwise would.

The major general types of fish foods are dry foods, frozen and freeze-dried foods, and live foods. Of the dry foods, sticks and pellets are wonderful ways to get lots of food into large fishes and are the preferred dry food for them. But for small and average fishes, I prefer flakes. They have one very big advantage: They have a very large surface area for their weight, making them extremely easy to swallow and digest. Pellets and sticks, on the other hand, are not only often too large for the average fish but, also, can swell after being swallowed and can block up the mouth, throat, or intestines. Granted this is not common, but I figure, why take the chance?

Frozen and freeze-dried natural foods like brine shrimp, various small worms, and plankton, krill and much more for both freshwater and marine hobbyists can be great treats for your fishes. Some companies, including my own, have created staple frozen foods that are mixtures of ingredients. Freezing and, even, freeze drying some natural food organisms will not kill some of the pathogens they may contain. So there is always some risk when feeding these foods that you will introduce enough disease organisms to trigger an outbreak in your aquarium. The risk is even greater with those organisms commonly raised and collected in unsanitary conditions. For this reason, I have always avoided feeding tubifex worms and black worms and will not even sell blackworms frozen or freeze-dried to my company's customers. My personal choice for years has been to feed no foods that have even the slightest chance of introducing a disease problem for my fishes. This choice was made possible by the remarkable advancements in dry foods and the development of that food I set out to create some 40 years ago.

For many years, I raised my own live foods so I could give my fishes treats but be very sure that those treats they ate were as clean as possible. Though I went through stages of raising almost every live food you can think of, I guess white worms and wingless fruit flies were my favorites. The white worms gave me a huge plus in that they substantially raised the fat content of my fishes' diet when used regularly.

This article would not be complete without my mentioning an accelerating trend in live foods. This trend is particularly exciting to me because I care a great deal about the environment. I am speaking of the growing number of people who are raising red wiggler worms for their fishes. This worm is a type of earthworm and earthworms are wonderful food for fishes, many would say the very best fish food of all. Red wiggler worms are smaller than (about one-third the size of) the so-called dew, night-crawler, or night-walker worms that emerge in grassy areas when it rains. Red wigglers will eat your table scraps and even your cardboard and newspapers. In return for your feeding them this stuff that would otherwise add to the terrible load of waste we overflow our landfills and water tables with, these worms multiply happily to feed your fishes and fascinate you and your family and visitors. And, perhaps best of all, they produce a fabulous fertilizer for your house plants and garden. If you keep them properly; and it is unbelievably easy to do so, these worms never get sick, create no unpleasant odor, and attract no bothersome other pests. I have kept a working bin of these worms in my office just for the pleasure of it. About a year ago, my company became the only company to specialize in providing everything tropical fish hobbyists need to raise these worms correctly.



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