Ask the Dietitian: Why Chromium Counts

In the fourth of our seven-part series on minerals, we speak with Sheah Rarback about chromium. Sheah is a registered dietitian nutritionist with the University of Miami Health System.

UMiami Health News: Why do we need chromium?

Sheah Rarback: Chromium helps the body regulate blood sugar and insulin and metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Our bodies only need trace amounts of this mineral. A healthy diet meets all of your chromium needs. Supplements do exist in the form of chromium picolinate, but many health experts question their value.

UMHN: There has been some controversy around chromium picolinate supplements. Can you explain that?

SR: Many claims have been made about the benefits of chromium picolinate. It has been said to  lower blood sugar and bad cholesterol, as well as helping people lose weight and build muscle mass.

However, the medical literature is divided as to whether these supplements actually reduce blood sugar. There’s some evidence that they may possibly lower cholesterol. As to weight loss, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database says chromium is “possibly effective”, but with obese individuals it’s likely to be ineffective. There is no evidence that chromium supplements build muscle mass.

As a registered dietitian, I recommend making dietary changes if you want to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Add more fiber to your diet by eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eat fewer refined, processed foods to reduce the simple sugars that contribute to diabetes. Start exercising. Stick with those habits for a month, then get your blood sugar levels tested. If they are still high, try chromium supplements for a month, then get your blood sugar tested again.

Food has so many positive effects that supplements can never accomplish. Lifestyle changes help many people avoid diabetes and heart disease. If you’re already diabetic or have heart disease, these changes still help – some people even reduce or eliminate their medications. Consult with your doctor before and after making lifestyle changes to ensure that your medication dosage is on track. High doses of chromium picolinate can cause low blood sugar, stomach problems and may damage your liver or kidneys. Also, diabetics should consult a doctor before supplementing because chromium can affect insulin dosage.

UMHN: What are the signs of chromium deficiency?

SR: Deficiencies are rare. We only need a trace amount of this mineral each day. That’s equivalent to one grain of salt. In rare instances, a deficiency could cause a craving for sweets, depression, decreased ability to metabolize blood sugar and fats, increased cholesterol and triglycerides and inability to produce protein. However, those symptoms are also caused by a nutrient-poor diet.

UMHN: Are some people more likely to become chromium deficient?

SR: Yes, several factors can interfere with your ability to metabolize blood sugar, which affects chromium absorption. These include:

  • Infection
  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Extreme exercise
  • Physical trauma

Diet is another factor. People who regularly eat highly processed, high-sugar foods tend to secrete more chromium in their urine.

Many medications also interfere with chromium absorption or speed up excretion:

  • Antacids
  • Corticosteroids
  • H2 blockers
  • Proton pump inhibitors (omaprazanole, etc.)
  • Beta-blockers
  • Insulin
  • Nicotinic acid
  • NSAIDs (ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Prostaglandin inhibitors (aspirin, etc.)

UMHN: What foods contain the most chromium?

SR: Foods with a higher chromium content include:

  • Whole grains, especially wheat germ
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Potatoes
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Grape juice
  • Red wine
  • Beef and poultry
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Brewer’s yeast

A splash of lemon juice (vitamin C) over steamed vegetables helps your body absorb this mineral. The B vitamins in whole grains, fish, poultry and lean red meats also enhance chromium absorption.

UMHN: How do I know if I’m getting too much chromium in my diet?

SR: It’s not easy to overload on chromium because any excess is secreted in urine. A key difference between this and other minerals is that the amount you need is measured by Adequate Intake (AI) rather than Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).

The Takeaway: Chromium helps regulate blood sugar and insulin and metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates. A little goes a long way, deficiencies are rare and the excess is secreted in urine. There is no strong evidence that chromium picolinate supplements help regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, build muscle mass or help with weight loss. A healthy diet is more effective. If you’re concerned about diabetes, cholesterol, losing weight or building muscle, discuss your nutritional needs with a registered dietitian or your doctor.

Q&A compiled by Nancy Moreland, a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.