Chromium: Health benefits, sources, and potential risks
It is a metallic element that people need very small quantities.
There is limited information about the exact amount of chromium required, and what it does, as studies have so far produced conflicting results.
Recent results suggest that chromium picolinate supplements may have benefits for some people, but experts recommend diet, rather than supplements, as the best source of chromium.
Here are some key points about chromium. More detail is in the main article.
- Chromium is a mineral that humans need in very small quantities.
- Good sources include broccoli, liver, and brewers' yeast.
- Chromium supplements may enhance muscle mass, weight loss, and glucose control, but researchers are still working to confirm this.
- Nutritional supplements are like medications and those considering taking supplements should use them with caution. Healthful food is the best and safest source of nutrients.
Requirements and sources
Chromium can enhance insulin sensitivity, helping the body to correctly process blood glucose.
The Adequate Intake (AI) of chromium for ages 9 years and above ranges from 21 to 25 micrograms (mcg) per day for females and 25 to 35 mcg per day for men.
For infants and children, the recommended intake is:
- Up to 6 months: 0.2 mcg per day
- From 7 to 12 months: 5.5 mcg per day
- From 1 to 3 years: 11 mcg per day
- From 4 to 8 years: 15 mcg per day
There is no accurate measure of chromium nutritional status, but chromium deficiency in humans is rare.
Foods high in chromium
Some of the best sources of chromium are broccoli, liver and brewer's yeast. Potatoes, whole grains, seafood, and meats also contain chromium.
The following are good sources:
- Broccoli: 1 cup contains 22 mcg
- Grape juice: 1 cup contains 8 mcg
- Turkey breast: 3 ounces contains 2 mcg
- English muffin: one whole wheat muffin contains 4 mcg
- Potatoes, mashed: 1 cup contains 3 mcg
- Green beans: 1 cup contains 2 mcg
- Red wine: 5 ounces contains between 1 and 13 mcg
Most dairy products are low in chromium.
Broccoli is an excellent source of chromium.
Exactly how chromium benefits the body remains unclear, and reports of deficiency in humans are rare. Potentially, a deficiency could relate to some health problems.
These may include:
- impaired glucose tolerance, leading to reduced control of blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes
- less efficient control of cholesterol, leading to a higher chance of atherosclerosis and heart disease
However, there is little evidence to confirm either the benefits of chromium or what harms a deficiency might cause.
Benefits and risks of chromium supplements
Chromium picolinate is a popular supplement often marketed to those wanting to build muscle or lose weight. Some bodybuilders and athletes take it to enhance performance and increase energy.
Early studies suggested that supplemental chromium may contribute to weight loss and help increase muscle mass. These studies were not conclusive, but more recent studies have shown improved muscle growth or a decrease in fat mass.
In addition, the amount of weight lost was not considered sufficient to make supplements worthwhile. Some of those taking the supplement also experienced side effects, including watery stool, vertigo, headaches, and hives.
Past research was unable to confirm that supplemental chromium could benefit people with impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes, but more recent studies indicate that it may help in managing diabetes, reducing levels of blood lipids, enhancing weight loss, and improving body composition.
In one study, 96 patients with type 2 diabetes took either 400 micrograms (mcg) a day of chromium picolinate, 200 mcg a day, or a placebo.
Those who took 400 mcg daily saw improvements in endothelial function, lipid profile, and biomarkers of oxidative stress, suggesting that chromium picolinate could benefit patients with type 2 diabetes.
Findings published in 2017 in Nature, suggest that chromium picolinate, combined with statin medications, might help reduce the symptoms of atherosclerosis in mice. If so, chromium supplements could help improve heart health, especially in those with diabetes.
A further study has supported this. Researchers gave 19 people who were overweight but otherwise healthy a drink containing amino acids and chromium picolinate at breakfast. Those who consumed the drink had smaller blood sugar spikes, compared with those who did not.
Chromium supplements are often sold to support exercise, weight loss, and bodybuilding.
Supplements are like medications. They can interact with other substances, and too much can be harmful.
Chromium picolinate interferes with the absorption of thyroid medications. Thyroid medication should be taken at least 3 to 4 hours before or after any chromium supplement.
Supplemental chromium can interact with antacids, corticosteroids, H2 blockers, proton pump inhibitors, beta-blockers, insulin, nicotinic acid, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and prostaglandin inhibitors.
People who are using any of these drugs, and those with diabetes should speak to their doctor before taking chromium supplements, as these could affect the action of their regular medications.
Chromium supplements should not be taken during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, and they should not be given to children.
Cautions about supplements
The total diet is the most important factor in preventing disease and achieving good health.
Studies repeatedly show that isolating nutrients in supplement form will not provide the same health benefits as consuming the nutrient from a whole food.
It is not an individual nutrient that makes certain foods an important part of our diet, but how nutrients work together.
Chromium deficiency is rare, and studies have not yet confirmed the benefits of taking supplements, so it is best to obtain chromium through food.
There have been no reported cases of chromium poisoning due to food intake, so the IOM has not fixed a maximum intake level.
However, large doses of chromium in supplement form can cause stomach problems, low blood sugar, and kidney or liver damage.
It is always safer to get required nutrients from foods sources and to discuss any use of supplements with a physician.