Introduction: Malnutrition refers to both over- and undernutrition and results from a disruption in energy balance. It affects one in three people worldwide and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. The intestinal microbiota represents a newly identified factor that might contribute to the development of malnutrition, as it harbors traits that complement the human metabolic and endocrine capabilities, thereby influencing energy balance. Areas covered: In the current review, we aim to give a comprehensive overview on the microbiota, its development and its possible influence on energy balance, with emphasis the role of short-chain fatty acids. We also consider microbial characteristics associated with obesity and undernutrition and evaluate microbial manipulating strategies. The PubMed database was searched using the terms: ‘gastrointestinal microbiota’, ‘volatile fatty acids’, ‘malnutrition’, ‘undernutrition’, ‘obesity’, ‘insulin resistance’, ‘prebiotics’, ‘probiotics’, ‘antibiotics’ and ‘fecal microbiota transplantation’. Expert commentary: Microbiota make important contributions to the regulation of energy balance, whereas microbial disturbances might predispose to malnutrition. If we manage to manipulate the microbiota to our benefit, it could lead to preventive or therapeutic strategies targeting malnutrition.