Your body uses a variety of vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy. Some of the big ones you likely hear about all the time include calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium and all those B vitamins.
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And then, when you take a look down the supplement aisle, you find more. A lot more.
And you wonder, “Chromium? Do I need some of that?”
The answer, says registered dietitian Devon Peart, RD, MHSc, is almost certainly not — at least, not in the supplement form.
“Chromium is an essential mineral, meaning we don’t make it in our bodies, we have to get it from food. But your body only really needs trace amounts,” Peart explains. “There’s no strong evidence that taking chromium supplements will have health benefits. The hype around chromium isn’t backed by the latest scientific understandings.”
So, what exactly does the science say? Peart further explains.
What is chromium?
Chromium is one of the most common heavy metals found in soil. And it’s easily absorbed by plants’ roots. So, many plant foods naturally contain some chromium. And when animals eat plants, they absorb chromium, too. Chromium is involved in the action of insulin, as well as metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fats. Vitamin B3 (niacin) and vitamin C improve the absorption of chromium.
Chromium supplements are sold primarily as solutions for blood sugar regulation and weight loss. And some people will tell you that they’ll help build muscle and boost your athletic performance as well. But there isn’t good evidence to back up any of these health benefits.
Chromium benefits: The science
Some early scientific studies showed promise for health benefits of supplemental chromium. But our understanding has evolved since then.
Chromium deficiency is rare, Peart notes, and certain situations can affect absorption.
Diets that are very high in refined sugars (think cookies, sweets, pastries, sweetened beverages) can cause more chromium to be excreted in your urine (pee). Other situations that can increase chromium losses include pregnancy and lactation, strenuous exercise and physical stress from infections and trauma.
“A risk of chromium deficiency during these times is more likely if your diet is also low in chromium,” Peart adds. “This scenario is usually only seen in populations where there is malnutrition, or acute illness that would lead to deficiency of many nutrients, not just chromium.”
Earlier understandings of chromium’s benefits were based on some preliminary research (much of it not done in humans). Those studies suggested chromium may benefit people who had or were at risk of conditions like:
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).
- Diabetes and prediabetes.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol).
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
But those initial results haven’t stood up over time. Newer studies have shown the effects of chromium on these and other conditions to be minimal at best. And not at all beneficial in other cases.
These days, scientists don’t think chromium supplements are necessary for good health.
“We don’t have evidence to show that people don’t get enough chromium. Or that, if they are low in it, that it causes health problems,” Peart states. “I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that would lead me to think chromium is something we should be looking to increase in a deliberate way.”
If you have a balanced diet and you don’t fall into one of the specific scenarios described above, you’re likely getting enough chromium.
Natural sources of chromium
Chromium is naturally present in some foods. But how much a certain food contains will vary based on soil conditions, water conditions and the manufacturing process.
Lots of foods contain trace amounts of chromium — and that’s all you really need. Some foods with the highest amounts include:
- Grape juice.
- Brewer’s yeast.
- Orange juice.
- Turkey breast.
- Tomato juice.
- Green beans.
The problem with chromium supplements
Scientists know that you’re not deficient in chromium. But that doesn’t stop the supplement world from trying to convince you that you are. And your friend who swears by it? They can be pretty convincing.
But Peart stresses that buying chromium supplements isn’t just money down the drain. It can also negatively affect your health to fill up on a mineral that your body doesn’t need.
“I’d advise a lot of caution with using chromium supplements,” she says. “There is a risk of interactions with some medications and potential negative side effects — and not enough evidence that there’s an upside.”
And there isn’t enough data to establish a recommended dietary allowance for chromium, nor is there a maximum intake. Peart explains that’s because the level (either from food or supplements) that would cause toxicity isn’t clear.
What we do we have are “adequate intake” levels:
- 35 micrograms (mcg) for males 19 to 50.
- 25 mcg for females age 19 to 50.
The supplement forms of chromium available on the market far exceed those guidelines — some containing between 250 mcg and 1,000 mcg. The health benefits and risks of chromium at these high levels haven’t been studied. So, it’s not well known what such high levels of chromium would do in your body.
Further, chromium supplements may interfere with medications, including insulin, aspirin, over-the-counter pain relievers and medications for acid reflux and thyroid conditions.
Chromium supplements have also been associated with a range of side effects, including:
- Upset stomach.
- Mood changes.
Long-term use of high doses of chromium may also cause more serious effects, like liver or kidney damage.
Peart advises talking with a healthcare provider, like a primary care physician or registered dietitian, before taking chromium supplements. They can help you find science-backed solutions that help you reach your goals.