The gut microbiota is a dense and diverse microbial community governed by dynamic microbe-microbe and microbe-host interactions, the status of which influences whether enteric pathogens can cause disease. Here we review recent insights into the key roles that nutrients play in bacterial pathogen exploitation of the gut microbial ecosystem. We synthesize recent findings to support a five-stage model describing the transition between a healthy microbiota and one dominated by a pathogen and disease. Within this five-stage model, two stages are critical to the pathogen: (i) an initial expansion phase that must occur in the absence of pathogen-induced inflammation, followed by (ii) pathogen-promoting physiological changes such as inflammation and diarrhoea. We discuss how this emerging paradigm of pathogen life within the lumen of the gut is giving rise to novel therapeutic strategies. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.