The human gut microbiota (HGM) makes an important contribution to health and disease. It is a complex microbial community of trillions of microbes with a majority of its members represented within two phyla, the Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, although it also contains species of Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria. Reflecting its importance, the HGM is sometimes referred to as an ‘organ' as it performs functions analogous to systemic tissues within the human host. The major nutrients available to the HGM are host and dietary complex carbohydrates. To utilise these nutrient sources, the HGM has developed elaborate, variable and sophisticated systems for the sensing, capture and utilisation of these glycans. Understanding nutrient acquisition by the HGM can thus provide mechanistic insights into the dynamics of this ecosystem, and how it impacts human health. Dietary nutrient sources include a wide variety of simple and complex plant and animal-derived glycans most of which are not degraded by enzymes in the digestive tract of the host. Here we review how various adaptive mechanisms that operate across the major phyla of the HGM contribute to glycan utilisation, focusing on the most complex carbohydrates presented to this ecosystem.