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The scoop on chromium

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

What first pops in your head when you hear chromium or chrome? Chances are it’s the silvery parts or trim on a prized car or Harley. But did you know that as well as helping a motor sheen, chromium may help get your motor running too because it’s an essential trace mineral that’s vital for good health. It may only play a bit part alongside the dietary biggies (iron, calcium or zinc), but that bit part is a key player in how our bodies metabolise carbohydrate, fat and protein.


Of course, if you’ve been driving down the diabetes highway for a while and doing what you can to manage your blood glucose levels, then you’re likely to have seen more signposts on chromium than most people. Why? Well chromium supplements are a popular pill to pop in people with diabetes. Also with bodybuilding gym junkies looking to shine and making up over 5% of all supplement sales in the US.

Where to get it? Being a mineral, chromium is widely available in the food supply and only a tiny or trace amount (ranging from 25-45micrograms per day) is required for good health. The best source of chromium is brewer's yeast, but many people don’t go there because it can make you feel bloated and even cause nausea. More popular choices include: bran based breakfast cereals, wholegrain breads and cereals, egg yolk, cheese, yeast extract like Vegemite, fruits such as apples, oranges and pineapple, vegetables such as broccoli, mushrooms, potatoes with their skin on, tomatoes, liver, kidney and lean meat, peanuts, oysters and some spices like pepper and chilli.

What’s the link with blood glucose? So if chromium is so easy to get from a healthy diet why all the diabetes hype? Scientists have known for decades that chromium is involved in glucose metabolism. Originally believed to make up a glucose tolerance factor, more recent research suggests that chromium is part of a very small protein molecule that helps activate insulin receptors in your body’s cells. And this in turn makes your insulin work more effectively and better manages your blood glucose levels.

It would therefore seem logical that people with low levels or deficiencies of chromium, could have blood glucose control problems. And bingo, you’re right. We know from medical history that patients fed early intravenous solutions without chromium, developed high blood glucose levels and reversible diabetes. But is more chromium necessarily better and can you have too much of a good thing?

Chromium in question Several studies have looked at whether or not people with diabetes or pre-diabetes should take a regular chromium supplement with mixed results. However, a systematic review published in Diabetes Care concluded that in people with either normal glucose tolerance or glucose intolerance (pre-diabetes), chromium supplementation did not appear to have an effect. However, in people with existing type 2 diabetes studies on chromium supplementation using brewers’ yeast or an absorbable form of supplement called chromium picolinate, did have an overall modest benefit on blood glucose control.

The researchers are quick to point out though that more studies are needed before definitive claims or advice can be made about chromium supplements with diabetes. As there is no evidence of widespread chromium deficiency, eating a varied, balanced diet with plenty of good sources of chromium is the best bet approach.

Health authorities also caution that as chromium accumulates in the body and there are a number of adverse effects of high intakes, including renal failure, there is a risk of toxicity from supplements. And remember, because of the potential interactions between nutrients and medications, it pays to speak to your health professional before taking any new supplements.

The scoop? It’s probably best not to take a chromium supplement ‘just in case’ until more studies are completed. But if you feel your diet is inadequate or your motor needs a tune-up, speak to an Accredited Practising or Registered Dietitian.

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out or subscribe for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.