Chromium: The Facts and Fallacies

What you need to know about this essential mineral for fat loss and muscle gain.

Chromium supplements have received a lot of press in recent years and supplement companies have promoted chromium containing supplements as potent fat burning, muscle building compounds. Some show pictures of miraculous before and after photos or wash board abs and laud all these incredible effects to chromium. Exactly what is the story on chromium? Is it some high-tech component that mysteriously burns fat and builds muscle? More importantly, will taking a chromium supplement help you lose body fat and build muscle? Well, I’ve reviewed the research on chromium and cut through the marketing crud to provide some answers that are going to surprise you.

What is chromium?

Chromium is an essential, biologically active trace mineral that is critical to healthy metabolism. Chromium’s main gig in our physiology is a big one, it’s primarily involved in the correct metabolism of carbohydrates. Chromium stimulates the activity of enzymes involved in the metabolism of glucose for energy, the synthesis of fatty acids and cholesterol. Most important, chromium is the nutrient vital to the glucose tolerant factor (GTF).1 Sounds heavy but it’s not that complicated. The GTF basically serves to make insulin (our most anabolic hormone) work better. Insulin (in combination with a few others) is one of the most important hormones regarding fat loss and muscle gain and staying healthy. Insulin is the hormone that facilitates all growth and nutrient transport in the body. Without the right insulin levels you won’t grow a thumbnail or shed a molecule of fat. The GTF ensures that insulin works as effectively as it can.1 Chromium is the centerpiece of the GTF (the B vitamin niacin and amino acids complete the formula).8 Low levels of chromium knee caps GTF function. Inadequate GTF means the body has to churn out double the amount of insulin to get the small job of nutrient transport done. Flooding the body with insulin and high insulin levels reeks havoc with our physiology. High insulin levels in blood cause tremendous fat storage, big stomachs, diabetes, obesity and all the medical problems that go along with it.

You’re probably starting to get the picture that chromium is quite important, especially if you’re trying to lose fat, build muscle or both.

As I mentioned, chromium maintains GTF levels and this serves to keep insulin working optimally. All anabolic processes with muscle cells, particularly protein synthesis, are intimately affected by this chromium/insulin activity.1-7 The interest in chromium as a nutrient to promote muscle growth is related particularly to this chromium/insulin activity.

The results of chromium supplementation.

The beneficial effects of chromium supplementation (in the form of picolinate or nicotinate) on insulin and glucose metabolism came to prominence from research with diabetics, both insulin dependant and non-insulin dependant.1-7 Chromium supplementation was shown to dramatically improve blood glucose levels (an indication of insulin efficiency) in adults that developed type II diabetes later in life.4-7 Chromium also enhanced the efficiency of the insulin type I diabetics must inject.1-3 Interestingly, chromium supplementation is also shown to favorably effect blood insulin levels and lipid profiles of healthy, young adults without diabetes.5 Now that’s important. However, the research on chromium enhancing body composition (gaining muscle and losing fat) is conflicting.

One study by Evans and colleagues6 showed chromium (as picolinate) 200mcg/day resulted in greater gains in muscle and fat loss during six weeks of weight training. Hasten and co-workers9 reported that the same amount of chromium supplementation (also as picolinate) did not affect fat loss and muscle gains in women during 12 weeks of weight training. But the women did increase their body weight.

But I gotta tell ya folks, after reviewing both studies I am not happy with their testing protocols. Both studies used skin fold assessment to determine the composition changes. That method alone is just not consistent or good enough for scientific research. Since those studies, others have been published that have incorporated much more accurate body composition assessment (such as the DEXA and underwater weighing). Athletes supplementing with chromium in these trials found no effect of chromium supplementation on body fat loss or muscle gain.10-11 However, one study reported at the 1996 American Collage of Sports Medicine annual meeting12 examined body composition changes of male and female athletes using chromium over 24 weeks. The research showed that over a longer study period, chromium supplementation did enhance fat loss and muscle gains. These guys ‘n’ gals used 400mcg/day of chromium picolinate and interestingly, the scientists commented that the improvements in body composition were only seen after the 12-week mark.12 That is, it took at least three months for chromium to exert its effects on metabolism and enable any change. This is an important aspect that you need to be aware of.

The science of supplementation is to build a better body, and that my friends takes time. Much longer than a few weeks. The full impact of a nutrient on the dynamics of cell proliferation (dying and growing new ones) takes time to show improvements or deficiencies. As I’ve stated before, all cells within your body are constantly in a state of turnover (new taking the place of old cells) and this regeneration process can only occur entirely from what nutrients you give your body! If your diet is deficient in any nutrient, so then will be every cell that is created from there on! Most studies on vitamin and mineral supplementation are short term (under 12 weeks). Far too short a time frame to monitor the impact of the introduction of a supplement on cell turnover and physiology.

The big question.

Does this research mean taking large amounts of chromium will make you burn fat and/or stack on muscle? The answer is no, and be very wary of anyone that implies it can. Let me explain why.

Yes, chromium is an essential mineral, however it exists in concentrations of 20 parts chromium per 1 billion parts of blood.8 Now that type of concentration or ratio is too small to express in numbers, non-scientific numbers anyway. Chromium is a trace element, not a macronutrient like protein, carbs and fat. Nor is it a micronutrient such as calcium, phosphorous or zinc. These elements are required in amounts far, far greater on a daily basis than chromium. The amount of chromium required for optimal health is unknown and excess consumption is shown to reverse insulin’s effectiveness, not help it.8

However, even a minor deficiency in chromium will have a disastrous effect on your health, and systematic tests in the US and other developed countries demonstrate chromium deficiency is wide spread.8 This is because the soil used to grow crops in the US and other countries does not contain an adequate supply, and thus chromium cannot be absorbed by the crop or the water supply.8 Our love for refined foods increases chromium deficiency even further. Chromium is required for proper carbohydrate metabolism and our carbohydrate sources are virtually devoid of chromium creating a further drain on minuscule body stores.

Should you take a chromium supplement?

Definitely. It is probably the one nutrient we as modern humans have a systematic deficiency in. Also, intense and prolonged exercise is shown to cause chromium excretion via urine.2 The harder you train the more chromium you need.

Picolinate is the most research proven form of chromium. It is the one shown to work in non-diabetic people.5 Exactly how much you need, no one knows, yet. However, we can take a pretty good (and safe) estimate from the research so far. Those athletes used 400mcg/day and weighed between 120-170lbs.12 Dosages of between 200-800 micrograms are shown to be safe for non-diabetic people.2,5 Adult type II diabetics consumed 1000mcg/day and benefited tremendously, with no side effects.7 Depending on your mass and frequency of training your dosage may lie between these figures. Obviously the larger you are and the harder you train, the more likely you are to require the upper end of these figures.

Remember, taking large dosages of chromium will not aid in fat loss, and they may be harmful. However, a deficiency in this trace element will stop your health and fitness ambitions dead in their tracts. Chromium is a vital but microscopic “cog” in the fat loss, muscle building process. It is the one mineral you are most likely to be deficient in. As long as you view chromium supplementation somewhere between this continuum, you will immune yourself to the snake oil sellers promising great transformations and you will not be disappointed.

Scientific References

Anderson RA. Chromium metabolism and its role in disease processes in man. Clin Physiol Biochem. 1986;4:31-41.

Anderson RA, et al. Execise effects on chromium excretion of trainined and untrained men consuming a constant diet. J.Appl.Physiol.1988;64:249-52

Grant KE et al. Chromium and exercise training: effect on obese women, Med Sci Sports & Exerci.1997;29:992-8

Thomas VL, Gropper SS. Effect of chromium nicotinic acid supplementation on selected cardiovascular disease risk factors. Biol Trace Elem Res 1996;55:297-305.

Wilson BE, Gondy A. Effects of chromium supplementation on fasting insulin levels and lipid parameters in healthy-non-obese, young subjects. Diabetes Res. Clin. Pract. 1995;28:179-84

Evans GW. The effect of chromium picolinate on insulin controlled parameters in humans. Int. J. Biosocial Med Res 1989;8:1391-401

Anderson RA. Benificial effects of chromium for people with type II diabetes. Diabetes. 1996;45Suppl2:124A.

Nutrition Almanac 4th ed. McGraw-Hill Publishing.

Hasten DL,et al.Effects of chromium picolinate on beginning weight training students. Int.J.Sport.Nutr 1992;2:343-50

Clancy SP,et al. Effects of chromium picolinate supplementation on body composition, strength, and urinary chromium loss in football players. Int.J.Sport Nutr 1994;4:142-53.

Hallmark MA, et al Effects of chromium and resistive training on muscle strength and body composition. Med Sci.Sports and Exerc.1996;28:139-44.

Bulllbulian R, Pringle DD,Liddy MS. Chromium picolinate supplemntation in male and female swimmers. Med Sci Sport Exerc.1996;28:S111

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