Chromium Picolinate is a nutritional supplement that works to increase
the efficiency of insulin to optimal levels. Gaining increased
popularity in the United States, this supplement has been touted
a miracle mineral, one advertised to have myriad effects including
weight loss, mood enhancement, energy promotion, increase in life
span, and even the prevention of acne (Krzanowski, 1996).
The most common usage for chromium picolinate is as a weight loss
aid; claims that this supplement can melt fat, drastically reduce
appetite, and increase metabolism are rampant and account for the
popularity of chromium picolinate in our diet-obsessed culture.
Recently, the supplement has been marketed as a “safe alternative
to steroids,” claiming to increase strength and lean muscle mass
(Trent &Thieding-Cancel, 1995). Chromium picolinate is a common
ingredient in many herbal weight-loss concoctions readily available
for over-the-counter sale at the local drugstore or on the internet.
However, because chromium picolinate is a nutritional supplement
rather than a prescription drug, the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) cannot vouch for the accuracy of advertiser’s often remarkable
claims (Krzanowski, 1996). Additionally, scientific research
is generally unsupportive of the weight loss claims surrounding
chromium picolinate; consumers must be aware of these discrepancies
when making a decision to take this or any other nutritional supplement.
What is chromium picolinate?
This popular nutritional supplement is a combination of the element
chromium and picolinic acid. Chromium is a naturally-occurring
mineral, trace amounts of which are found in everyday foods like
meat, poultry, fish, and whole-grain breads. When foods are
processed, they are stripped of natural chromium, making American
diets generally very low in chromium; studies estimate an average
daily chromium consumption of 33 mcg. In 1968, it was demonstrated
that when animals do not receive adequate levels of chromium, insulin
is not optimally effective, and damage to insulin-dependent systems
can occur (Schroeder, 1968). This led the FDA to recommend
a daily chromium intake of approximately 130 mcg, as infinitesimal
amounts of chromium are needed to aid the transport of blood glucose
across cell membranes. Combining chromium with picolinic acid
simply aids in efficient chromium absorption, and it is this combined
form that is popular on the diet market today.
How does chromium picolinate work?
After eating, the human body secretes the hormone insulin.
In general, the primary function of insulin is to transport glucose
to the body’s cells in order to provide energy that facilitates
cell functioning. It is speculated that chromium picolinate
works by stimulating the activity of insulin, thus significantly
aiding the body’s glucose and fat metabolism, managing the breakdown
of glucose and fat . The exact mechanisms by which chromium
improves this insulin efficiency are currently unclear; it has been
suggested that chromium somehow works to increase sensitivity of
insulin receptors (Krzanowski, 1996). However, because research
has yet to produce any definite answers as to the exact function
of chromium picolinate, competing theories about its precise effects
exist. Some claim that that the improved insulin efficiency
causes an increase in the production of seratonin, which subsequently
reduces appetite. Still others assert that chromium can regulate
the fat-production processes in the body, preventing excess fat
from forming. One hypothesis states that chromium picolinate
increases protein synthesis, which in turn stimulates muscle growth.
Heavy marketing of chromium picolinate as a dietary aid focuses
on chromium picolinate’s reputed ability to reduce the body’s fat
stores while conserving lean muscle mass.
Claims about chromium picolinate
The internet is littered with sites that laud chromium picolinate
as the ultimate weight loss tool. Many of these sites market
chromium picolinate as having a very specific effect on the body's
energy supply, tagging the supplement “an indispensable biochemical
partner of insulin” . As such, chromium picolinate will help
the dieter burn calories and control their appetite while melting
away undesirable body fat. In addition to these appealing
claims is the statement that chromium picolinate will increase and
even tone lean muscle mass during the weight loss process.
The supplement is therefore a vital addition to recent “exercise
in a bottle” and herbal fat burner pills. These diet compounds,
which are readily available over the internet, often combine chromium
picolinate with L-carnitine, with guarana and ma huang, or with
dangerous diuretics . Such combination tablets are risky,
as any interactions between chromium picolinate and other supplements
remain unknown at this time . Nevertheless, chromium picolinate
continues to appear as an ingredient in products with promising
names like “Ripped Action,” “Fat Burner Bars,” and “Ripped Fast,”
alluding to the spectacular results that a dieter might expect from
chromium picolinate . Weight loss is not the only effect that
one can expect from chromium picolinate, however. One bodybuilding
site even refers to uncited “evidence” that chromium picolinate
can expand the life span via “age-slowing effects” while as improving
Does chromium picolinate effectively aid weight loss?
Scientific research has been largely unsupportive of the appealing
claims made about chromium picolinate’s ability to significantly
aid weight loss. Because chromium picolinate professes an
ability to reduce fat while maintaining and increasing lean muscle
mass, the most relevant studies are those examining body composition.
These measurements typically include percent body fat, body weight,
and lean body mass. A study by Trent and Thieding-Cancel (1995)
examines the effectiveness of chromium picolinate as a fat-reduction
aid in an obese subject population. In this particular study,
obesity was defined as exceeding the Navy’s percent body fat standards:
22% fat for men and 30% fat for women. Over the course of
the study, subjects met three times weekly for at least thirty minutes
of aerobic activity; one half of the group received 400 mcg of chromium
picolinate to supplement their training, while the other group received
a placebo. Height, body weight and percent body fat measurements
were obtained at the onset of the study and sixteen weeks later.
Results did not indicate any differences in measures of body composition
between the experimental (chromium) group and the control (placebo)
group. Although the group as a whole lost a small amount of
weight, this change was attributed to the implementation of an exercise
regimen rather than to chromium supplementation. The authors
conclude absolutely no link between body fat, insulin insensitivity,
and chromium picolinate, and do not recommend the supplement as
a useful aspect of weight-loss programs (Trent & Thieding-Cancel,
A paper by Grant et al (1997) examined the effects of chromium
supplementation in a population of obese women. Subjects took
either 200 mcg of chromium picolinate or a placebo with or without
exercise training. This particular program that consisted of both
cardiovascular and resistance training. In addition, the women
were asked not to alter their diets in any way during the course
of the study. The dependent measures in the Grant et al (1997)
study were body weight, body fat percentage, fat mass, as well as
fat free mass. After nine weeks on this program, some interesting
findings were revealed. First, the coupling of chromium picolinate
and exercise did not produce any significant weight loss as compared
to controls, supportive of Trent & Thieding-Cancel (1995) and
the general conclusion that chromium picolinate does not enhance
weight loss. A second important finding was that chromium
supplementation without exercise actually produced a significant
increase in body weight. This suggests that chromium picolinate
is not only an ineffective tool for weight loss, but may in fact
be counterproductive in dieting endeavors (Grant et al, 1997).
A sample of normal males is examined in a third study testing the
effects of chromium picolinate on weight loss and body composition
(Lukaski et al, 1996). This group was enrolled in a weight
training class designed to maximize strength gain in all major muscle
groups. Again, the experimental group participated in the
exercise program with chromium picolinate supplementation while
the control group took a placebo. At the end of an eight week
period, both groups were tested for strength, fat-free mass, and
muscle mass; while all measures increased as a result of resistance
training, there were no significant differences between the experimental
and control groups. Additionally, there was no effect on fat
loss in either group (Lukaski et al, 1996).
Because chromium picolinate is occasionally marketed to athletes
as a natural alternative to steroids, it is pertinent to consider
the effects of chromium supplementation within an athlete population.
Walker et al (1998) examine body composition and muscular performance
of Division I collegiate wrestlers involved in preseason conditioning.
The authors point out that “during this phase of training, wrestlers
are primarily interested in trying to improve performance…and are
not engaged in severe, acute weight loss practices commonly employed
before competition” (Walker et al, 1998). Athletes participated
in a fourteen week resistance and conditioning schedule. One
group’s training was supplemented with chromium picolinate while
the other group took placebo tablets. In general agreement
with earlier studies, chromium picolinate was not found to decrease
body fat or to increase lean muscle mass or strength. This
study specifically refutes claims that chromium picolinate produces
results analogous to anabolic steroids, and discourages the use
of the supplement among athlete populations (Walker et al, 1998).
One study did reveal chromium picolinate as an effective aid
for weight loss. Harris et al (1998) examined dietary supplementation
with Chroma Slim?, a combination pill that includes chromium picolinate
and lipotropics such as L-carnitine. The combination of supplementation
and exercise significantly increased fat loss as compared to the
control group. At present, the results of this study were
available only in abstract form and offered only these promising
preliminary results (Harris et al, 1998). Several studies
using animal subjects also assert fat loss and muscle growth (i.e.
Mooney et al, 1995; Lindemann et al, 1995). However, evidence that
chromium picolinate can accomplish the same feat in humans is rare,
and overwhelmingly indicates that chromium picolinate is simply
not effective for human weight loss.
The majority of scientific evidence suggests that chromium picolinate
is neither a helpful nor beneficial part of weight loss programs.
In the absence of exercise, it may even cause weight gain.
An important side note is the fact that all groups involved in chromium
picolinate studies, particularly those groups of obese subjects,
managed to lose body weight and fat when enrolled in exercise training
programs. While chromium picolinate did not enhance weight
loss as expected, participants still lost weight and gained muscle
by exercising. Although not the easy solution desired by many
American dieters, exercise is a proven and safe method to lose weight,
to gain muscle, and to improve general health.
Does chromium picolinate have any adverse effects?
Chromium picolinate, though not a proven method of weight loss,
remains among the most popular dietary supplements available over
the counter. Because it is taken daily by millions of Americans,
it is important to evaluate any potential risks involved in chromium
supplementation. Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of research
concerning these side effects. Several case studies reporting
subtle behavioral changes as a result of chromium picolinate are
scattered throughout the literature. For example, one patient
took chromium picolinate on three separate occasions and had three
distinct episodes of “progressively worse cognitive, perceptual,
and motor changes” (Krzanowski, 1996). These episodes included
sensations of “feeling funny” to reports of mental “short circuiting”
and even a complete disruption of motor abilities (Krzanowski, 1996).
Other sources report vague symptoms including “irregular heartbeat,”
leading the FDA to cite “safety concerns”.
Should you take chromium picolinate?
Despite rampant claims that chromium picolinate is a weight loss
miracle that will melt fat, improve metabolism, and increase muscle
mass, scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the supplement
does nothing of the kind. When combined with exercise, chromium
supplementation does nothing to enhance weight loss as compared
to exercise alone, in study after study. The case of chromium
picolinate should caution consumers against believing miracle weight
loss claims. When advertised on the internet, chromium picolinate
is presented as a reliable, safe, and fast way to reduce body fat:
actual evidence presents a very different picture of this supplement.
Taking a daily dose of chromium picolinate will not likely produce
any drastic results, and certainly will not produce effects that
could not be achieved with exercise alone. Consumers should
always be wary of dietary supplements touted as “miracles,” and
investigate the truth behind flashy claims before deciding to take
any nutritional aid.
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