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Chromium: Supplements, What Works

Chromium is necessary for insulin to function properly in the human body. Insulin not only helps to metabolize sugars, but is also involved in the body's use of protein and fats. Borderline chromium deficiency may help to trigger adult-onset diabetes, but is not the underlying cause of diabetes, so chromium cannot cure the disease.

A majority of the American population takes in less than the RDA of chromium. Estimates are that 50 percent of the American population has a marginal or serious chromium deficiency, especially the elderly, pregnant women, and athletes. Therefore, supplementation with 50 to 200 mcg may be prudent.

Chromium supplementation does present some dangers. Excess dietary chromium may accumulate in the tissues and cause chromosome damage, which may contribute to cancer. Daily supplementation of 200 mcg or more of chromium picolinate, an organic form of chromium, has been linked to iron deficiencies because chromium competes with iron for transport and distribution. Trivalent chromium, the form found in the diet, has very low toxicity and a great margin of safety, but hexavalent chromium is toxic, and long-term occupational exposure can lead to skin problems, perforated nasal septum, and lung cancer.

Among the claims made for chromium are that it promotes an increase in lean body mass, increases strength during resistance training, stabilizes blood sugar levels, and lowers cholesterol. Following is an examination of these claims.

  • Strength and lean body mass. A 1989 study by Dr. Kenneth Cooper reported that football players were able to increase their muscle mass after taking 1.6 mg of chromium picolinate for two weeks, with total body fat decreasing from about 16 to 12 percent. This is a relatively high intake of chromium picolinate; some athletes take as little as 600 mcg a day (which is still equivalent to the dosage level that has produced chromosome damage in animals).


However, two recent studies have contradicted the findings of this 1989 study. In a 1996 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, muscle mass increased with resistance training, regardless of chromium supplementation. In a 1994 University of Massachusetts study, the strength and body fat of athletes was unaffected by the supplementation.


In a recent review of the clinical literature, Dr. Pamela Peeke, a National Institutes of Health researcher, failed to establish any beneficial effects of chromium supplementation on lean body mass and enhancement of strength. It appears as if the beneficial effects of chromium supplementation may occur only in individuals with impaired chromium status.

  • Weight loss. Despite the negative findings of research on athletes, chromium supplementation was found in a recent study to help overweight people lose body fat and improve the ratio of lean to fat tissue. In a 1996 study by Dr. Gilbert R. Kaats, chromium supplementation at both 200 and 400 mcg daily resulted in significant fat loss.

  • Glucose tolerance. Equivocal findings exist in studies that examine whether chromium helps to normalize blood sugar levels. Chromium supplementation can improve or normalize impaired glucose tolerance, but normal glucose tolerance is not further improved with chromium supplementation, according to studies by Anderson in 1991 and Abraham in 1992.

  • Blood lipids. Some researchers have found no improvement in blood lipids with chromium supplementation, while others, including Press in 1990, have obtained more positive results. Many nutritional factors influence lipid metabolism, and it may be that only certain cases are related to a low chromium status because of impairment of glucose tolerance. These cases would be expected to improve with chromium supplementation.


In conclusion, because chromium deficiency seems to be widespread in the U.S. diet, individuals with impaired glucose tolerance or lipid metabolism may benefit from chromium supplementation, especially if testing shows low blood levels of chromium. For other people, it is probably wiser to rely on nutritional sources.

Chromium can be obtained in the diet from whole grains, brewer's yeast, wheat germ, liver, broccoli, prunes, nuts, cheese, and fortified cereals. One form of yeast, known as chromium-enriched yeast, has an even higher chromium content than brewer's yeast. Both of these forms of yeast contain GTF (glucose tolerance factor) chromium, which is much better absorbed by the body than the other forms.



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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.

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