Dietary Chromium for Dummies
Chromium is a chemical element with the symbol Cr and atomic number 24. It is also an essential mineral for our health and well-being. There is a lot of conflicting information available regarding chromium and blood sugar control, with new information appearing regularly. Some articles report that chromium is important, some report chromium supplements are dangerous. These seemingly conflicting reports often generate anxiety and confusion. Regularly, some key questions get asked: “Is chromium really necessary, is it dangerous, and are supplements worth it?”. Like many things to do with diet the answers are complicated. While it is understood that naturally bioavailable chromium is essential for cells to metabolise glucose, the safety and efficacy of artificial supplements is less clear.
Chromium is what’s known as an essential trace mineral. That means humans require it for normal metabolic function, it must be acquired from our diet, but we only need a tiny amount. Chromium is used by cells in a peptide (called Chromodulin) that helps us absorb glucose out of our blood for energy as part of the insulin pathway. The best way to think of it is that if our cell has a locked door, insulin is the key to open it for glucose, however chromium is needed to remove the security chain to really let the sugar in. Without chromium it doesn’t matter how much insulin the body produces, cells will never really get the sugar they need to properly function. This is one of the ways we get insulin insensitivity.
As with many metals, chromium can be both beneficial and harmful to the body. There are two common types of chromium relevant to health: chromium III which is naturally found in foods, and chromium VI which is the nasty chromium that comes from metal contamination in our environment. Recently it was found that good chromium can turn to nasty chromium if you take too much as artificial supplements. However this doesn’t happen when chromium consumed from foods (high chromium foods include Brazil nuts, broccoli and some shellfish). Secondly, high levels of supplemental chromium has been shown to interfere with the absorption of some medications. Again, this isn’t true of high chromium foods.
In summary: Is it worth supplementing with chromium? – only if it is done with high chromium containing foods. Artificial supplements such as chromium picolinate, have never really been shown to provide much benefit, however eating high chromium foods has. However, this is not particularly true of a diet high in processed, starchy foods. Bioavailable chromium in foods is easily destroyed by the heat and chemicals commonly used in highly processed foods.