As a nutrient, chromium has an interesting history.
It was once as well-known as calcium as a supplement, but over time interest in the nutrient has decreased significantly – as has research into its effects (1).
Some of this is connected to controversy about how essential chromium actually is while the public’s attention has also been taken by nutrients like vitamin D, which offer much more proof of their effect on human health.
But, just how significant is chromium and is it something that you should be supplementing?
It turns out that we should really be looking at chromium picolinate benefits because this formulation of chromium has the most significance for health.
There is significant controversy surrounding the use of chromium as a supplement, particularly as the results of studies have been varied.
Furthermore, theories about the way that chromium works within the body do not agree with one another and there has not been sufficient research to clarify the specific mechanisms by which chromium acts.
Most discussions of chromium focus on chromium picolinate benefits, rather than chromium itself.
Chromium is the biologically active form of the mineral that is found in food (2).
However, you can’t simply supplement with chromium in the same way that you can with some other vitamins and minerals.
Instead, chromium itself is hard for the body to absorb.
So, formulations are used to increase the absorbency.
Specifically, the chromium is bound to an organic compound, which results in a compound like chromium picolinate.
There are other formulations of chromium, but in this article, I’m going to focus on chromium picolinate.
The reason for this is that chromium picolinate is the most studied formulation of chromium and it is the one that has been linked to the most benefits.
This is also a very common formulation and chromium picolinate is commonly found as an over-the-counter supplement.
Chromium for Diabetes
The most common application of chromium supplements is in the control of blood sugar for people with diabetes (either type 1 or type 2) or people with prediabetes.
The association between chromium and diabetes is a logical one, as chromium may play a role in the metabolism of glucose. Research into the effectiveness of chromium supplements in this role has found varied results (3).
A meta-analysis of studies into the role of chromium in diabetes found that many of the studies that have been conducted were of low quality, meaning that they are unlikely to be effective at finding an outcome.
Of those good-quality studies, the meta-analysis found that overall chromium did lead to improvements in glycemia within participants who had diabetes (4).
A second meta-analysis found that supplementation with chromium had a significant beneficial impact on fasting blood sugar levels, but not on other diabetes parameters, including lipids, body mass index and HbA1c (5).
One study did highlight the fact that some people may be responders and others may not be.
That study looked at the effects of supplementation in subjects with type 2 diabetes.
While the authors did find a trend towards an increase in insulin sensitivity, the observed effect was not statistically significant.
Additionally, less than half of the participants in the study were considered to respond to the supplementation (6).
A different study found that supplementing with 1,000 µg of chromium picolinate did result in a significant decrease in levels of free fatty acids and glucose (7).
However, this study looked at a treatment combination of chromium with sulfonylurea therapy. As such, some of the observed outcomes may have been the result of the combination rather than chromium itself.
Other individual studies have also suggested that chromium supplementation may be significant for patients with type 2 diabetes, with the potential to improve some diabetic measures, like blood glucose levels or HbA1c (8,9,10,11,12).
Chromium Picolinate Benefits for Weight Loss
The evidence surrounding the role of chromium in weight loss is considerably less than that surrounding diabetes.
Part of this comes from the fact that weight is influenced by a range of factors. Realistically, no single supplement will result in large amounts of weight loss independent of any other change. Additionally, people can potentially lose weight when they’re taking supplements simply because they subconsciously change their behavior.
In the case of chromium, results have been mixed, with some studies reporting that chromium had no impact on BMI. Yet, at the same time, a meta-analysis did find that chromium picolinate may play a role in weight loss (13). Likewise, some studies have found that chromium can directly contribute to weight loss (e.g. 14), but not all studies have found this outcome (15). The key reason for this difference is that many of the studies on chromium and weight loss have been small and low quality.
As such, it’s important to be wary of reading too much into this relationship.
One proposed mechanism for this action is that chromium (specifically chromium picolinate) may have a direct effect on the brain, resulting in a role in the regulation of food uptake.
Indeed, one study showed this, illustrating that supplementation with chromium could result in a decrease in food cravings, leading to weight loss (16).
An exploratory study in people with atypical depression also found similar outcomes (17).
Research largely indicates that chromium picolinate is ineffective at producing weight loss, regardless of whether exercise and diet changes also occurred or not.
For example, one study considered the role that supplementation with chromium picolinate on obese women also engaging in exercise training. In this study, participants were asked not to change their eating habits.
The authors found that there was no difference in weight loss between the use of placebos and chromium picolinate when exercise was also occurring.
Interestingly, in the group that did not exercise, chromium picolinate consumption was linked to increased weight (18).
Likewise, a toxicity study on high-dose chromium supplementation in mice and rats also noted that chromium had no impact on body weight (19).
Most of the research into chromium picolinate benefits has focused on type 2 diabetes and weight loss, but there have been some other areas of interest as well.
One study reported a relationship between chromium and risk of heart attack, where low levels of chromium were associated with a greater risk of heart attacks (20). Chromium has also been found to offer significant health benefits to people with chromium deficiencies (21).
There have also been some studies looking at the use of chromium for people with binge eating disorders.
In one study on people with binge eating disorders, the authors found that chromium did significantly reduce fasting glucose levels compared to the placebo group (22).
However, it is important to note that the study in question was a pilot study and contained just 24 participants, across three treatment groups.
This means that the number of people in each group was low (9, 7 or 8, depending on the group). That severely limits the statistical power of the study, meaning that the outcomes aren’t reliable.
Nevertheless, the authors of the study did note the importance of larger studies on the topic. If such studies were done, it might be possible to find out more about the roles of chromium, particularly in relation to glucose regulation.
However, it is important to note that not all studies agree with the outcomes discussed above.
For example, one study found that the use of chromium was ineffective for patients already on medications for diabetes (23).
A second study indicated that supplementing with chromium picolinate for six months was able to reduce the frequency of binge eating. Trends were also observed in weight, blood glucose levels and HbA1c levels (24).
While the results of that second study do look promising, they need to be viewed critically, as none of the observed effects were statistically significant.
In practice, that outcome means that the observed trends could have been the result of chance rather than chromium supplementation.
Limitations of Research
Rigorous, scientific research is the most reliable and effective way of knowing whether a given compound is safe for human consumption and achieves the desired goals. However, the process of scientific research is expensive, and there is a bias towards medications that are sponsored by large pharmaceutical companies. And, as the site Science-Based Medicine points out, there is no simple answer for funding and researching alternative approaches such as supplements.
This means that supplements like chromium often do not receive a large amount of testing, making it difficult to know whether chromium is effective as a supplement.
Consequently, it is important not to equate the limited amount of research on chromium with chromium being ineffective or unsafe. In reality, research has not progressed enough to know for certain whether chromium is effective.
But, both this article and one from Supplement Geek suggest that there could be some benefits from chromium, including positive implications for diabetes.
Is Chromium Essential?
For a long time, chromium has been considered an essential trace element and chromium picolinate benefits were largely assumed.
This means that chromium is critical for health, but that only small amounts of the nutrient are needed to achieve that outcome.
However, there has been significant debate about whether or not this perspective is accurate.
Originally, chromium was thought to be essential because it plays a role in ensuring correct lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. But, research hasn’t been able to identify the mechanisms behind that action.
Recent research has done little to prove chromium’s status as an essential nutrient.
Instead, multiple studies argue that chromium isn’t relevant for health at all, especially as its benefits remain largely unproven and there are some safety concerns surrounding the supplement (25,26,27).
This perspective suggests that for the general population, chromium may not have a relevant impact on the body.
However, for some parts of the population, such as the groups discussed earlier in the article, chromium may still be a significant and useful supplement.
Some researchers have also suggested the importance of researching the impacts of chromium for specific combinations of conditions, such as patients with diabetes, depression and binge eating (28).
Such an approach could be very relevant for finding out who is likely to benefit from chromium supplementation.
Safety and Dosage Information
For adults, research has focused on the use of 200 to 1,000 mcg daily, in multiple doses (29).
This level of dosage applies largely for type 2 diabetes, and levels of supplementation for other purposes have not been identified.
Chromium is a safe nutrient when used for a period of no more than six months. There is less evidence about whether chromium is safe when used for longer than this time, but the National Institute of Health indicates that it is possibly safe when used for more than six months (30).
One animal study looked at chromium toxicity in mice and rats over a two year period, where mice received substantially more chromium than humans would be likely to consume. Despite the high amount of chromium consumed, the authors reported no adverse effects, suggesting that chromium supplementation for humans may be safe in the long-term (31).
If you do plan to take chromium supplements, then it’s important to focus on high-quality brands. Consumer Lab offers a report on brands that they’ve tested. The information in that report shows which brands met their claims. As such, it is a good place to start choosing which brand you want to use.
Chromium in Food
The emphasis of this discussion has been the use of chromium supplements. However, the actual recommended levels for chromium intake are low, because it is considered a trace element (32).
So, you could also get your chromium from the diet.
Because of this, if you are eating a healthy amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet, you are probably already getting as much chromium as you need.
However, if you are interested in chromium as a way to treat a condition, the required dosage may be considerably higher. That is one reason that many people turn to supplements as a way to get chromium.
Interactions and Side Effects
With any medication or supplement, it is important to consider any potential interactions and side effects that may occur. This occurs because the human body is a highly complex system, and contains a large number of different components, all of which interact with one another and with the outside world.
It is recommended that people do not take chromium if they experience problems with their kidneys or their liver. Additionally, chromium (like most supplements and many medications), should be avoided if a person is breastfeeding or is pregnant.
Because chromium can act to decrease blood sugar, care should be taken when consuming it in addition to medication that has a similar function, such as insulin. Consuming multiple types of medication that decrease blood sugar may have the effect of decreasing blood sugar to a dangerous level.
Additionally, there is the potential for negative interactions between chromium and levothyroxine, a medication used to treat hypothyroidism, so this may be something to talk to your doctor about.
Chromium is certainly not the critical nutrient for health that people once thought.
However, the jury is still out about what precise role it does have.
For people with diabetes, it may still be a very relevant supplement. The same may be true for people trying to lose weight and for people with binge eating disorders.
It is clear that more research is needed before we truly know the potential of chromium.
More than anything, we need to know the mechanisms behind chromium’s actions in the body, as that will help to clear up what chromium can and cannot do.