Chromium conundrum

Are we onto something big here, or are we simply mineral fashion victims? Catherine Bothwell from Shape Magazine weighs up chromium supplementation.

In the “please-will-someone-give-Keira-Knightley-a-sandwich” world we live in, success is all too often synonymous with thin, thin, thin.

And because so many supremely successful women are still tortured by the issue of weight, the market has become a minefield of weight-loss supplements, meal-replacement products and other (not just ineffective, but often downright dangerous) promises.

So, when information crops up to indicate that something as simple as a mineral supplement could aid us in the weight-loss crusade, there’s cause for great excitement… and equal consternation.

Chromium is the mineral du jour, and also the topic of continuing hot debate. There have been claims that it can help treat impaired glucose intolerance and type-2 diabetes (where the body produces insulin but is unable to utilise it correctly), promote weight loss, and perhaps even ease depression (according to wellness guru and director of the Brain Bio Centre, Patrick Holford).

But some studies contend that chromium may lead to infertility (after research from the University of Alabama found that chromium picolinate led to sterility and lethal genetic mutations in fruit flies), and in 2003, a report by the UK’s Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals (EVM) noted that chromium pico­linate might be genotoxic (i.e. it could mutate DNA).

Damage to DNA can ultimately lead to cancer, so in light of this, the UK’s Food Standards Agency advised that chromium picolinate be avoided until specialist advice had been received from the Committee on Mutagenicity (COM).

But in November 2004, COM ruled that chromium picolinate was not genotoxic after all, that there was no need to avoid it, and that the maximum recommended supplementation level is 10mg a day.

This conflicting information leads to a confusing conundrum: OK, so chromium may not be dangerous, but does it come with real benefits?

What we do know

The main function of chromium is to boost the activity of insulin — namely, promoting glycogen sto­rage in muscles, enhancing protein synthesis, and stimulating fat for­mation in adipose tissues.

So, if insulin promotes fat storage, won’t chromium do the same? Well, insulin actually drives the fats in the bloodstream into fat cells. So when there’s too much insulin in the blood, abnormally high amounts of fat are pushed into your midsection (resulting in the characteristic “apple” body shape).

But chromium enhances insulin’s potency, thereby decreasing the total amount of insulin the body needs to produce. The result: lower insulin levels equals less fat tacked onto existing fat. Equals what seems to be a good thing.

The effectiveness debate

Will the recommended 10mg of chromium daily actually make any difference? Recent reviews by the US National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements suggest not.

Twenty-four studies examining the effects of 200-1000mcg per day of chromium picolinate on body mass or compo­sition found no significant benefits. And although clinical trials did show chromium picolinate aiding weight loss when compared to placebos, the differences were small and of debatable clinical relevance.

A foray into the world of mineral supplementation can turn out pricey and (sometimes) pointless, so remember to check with your doctor and make sure you know all the facts before you choose which ones to add to your repertoire.

Written by Catherine Bothwell  for Shape Magazine, July 2006

Read more:

Chromium cuts weight gain

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