Chromium Picolinate: What You Need to Know

pills spilled from their bottle against a white background
Some people take chromium picolinate as a weight-loss aid -- but does it really work?
iStockphoto/Nina Shannon

People will try almost anything to lose weight. Diet and exercise may be proven, but somehow, that strange new pill or supplement seems so much more appealing. At best, such pills are useless. At worst, they can cause serious side effects and complications. Enter chromium picolinate, whose weight-loss benefits may come at the price of mutated DNA.

Chromium picolinate is a nutritional supplement. Typically found in pill form, chromium picolinate can be purchased over the counter. As a supplement, however, it isn't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so its claims as a miracle supplement aren't officially proven or disproven [source: Allen]. Often, chromium picolinate is marketed as an herbal supplement. Be sure you look at reliable sources if you consider purchasing chromium picolinate after reading this article, as there have been cases of contaminated herbal supplements in certain stores [source: Healthline].


Chromium, without picolinate, is a natural mineral found in many foods such as meat, unprocessed foods, fats and vegetable oil [source: Larsen]. Specific foods that have chromium in them naturally include carrots, potatoes, broccoli, whole grains and molasses [source: Merck]. Other examples include eggs, beef and brewer's yeast [source: Any Vitamins].

Chromium is paired with acidic picolinate in pill form to help aid the body's ability to absorb the mineral. Picolinate is produced when tryptophan is made, therefore it's also known as a by-product of tryptophan [source: Merck].

Since chromium picolinate is probably new to you, you most likely have a lot of questions you want answered. You might want to know how exactly chromium picolinate is supposed to work in your body. What are the benefits of chromium picolinate purported to be? Will you be able to lose weight if you take a chromium picolinate supplement daily? What might some of the side effects be -- like mutated DNA -- if you take chromium picolinate? In the following pages, we'll find out the answers to these questions and more.


Chromium Picolinate at Work in Your Body

To understand how chromium picolinate works in your body, you first have to understand how the body produces insulin. Every time we eat, our bodies release a hormone called insulin. Insulin originates in our pancreas and plays a part in supplying our body with glucose, something our cells require in order to function [source: Larsen]. You can think of it in terms that glucose is to cells as fuel is to cars.

Now that you understand what insulin does, you might be wondering how chromium has any part in this process. Chromium has been shown to help insulin carry glucose to the body's cells [source: Larsen]. It's then believed that chromium has a role in overseeing the breakdown of fat and glucose. This theory about the function of chromium hasn't had the benefit of being tested rigorously to the point that it's proven or disproven.


Several theories about what chromium really does conflict with each other. For instance, there's a theory that because chromium streamlines the production of insulin, it has an effect on serotonin. Another theory claims that chromium in the body helps keep fat production in check. And yet another theory states that chromium boosts the processes of protein in the body. Whatever the theories are, none have been proven to be definite answers to the questions we have about chromium's exact purpose in the body's functions [source: Allen].

Many marketing and advertising companies focused on health products like to promote the supposed benefits of chromium picolinate. Read the next page to find out what these benefits are.


Chromium Picolinate Benefits

Chromium picolinate has been heavily promoted in our society as a miracle supplement that might provide your body with numerous benefits helping a wide range of people looking for ways to combat their diabetes and obesity or help with their muscle-building issues.

To highlight chromium picolinate's most plausible benefit, we'll need to remember what role the mineral chromium plays in the body's normal day-to-day functions. You learned on the previous page that chromium is an important mineral that helps process carbohydrates and fats. The way chromium does this is by triggering a reaction from insulin, the hormone that provides blood sugar fuel to cells. Because of this mineral's role in the functioning of insulin, some people believe that chromium picolinate could prevent and treat diabetes [source: UC Berkeley Wellness Letter].


Because chromium also plays a role in the processing of fats and carbohydrates, some people believe that chromium picolinate might help with obesity, thinking the supplement would lessen someone's appetite and craving for certain foods, in addition to building lean muscle mass [source: Body Building for You]. A more complete picture of the relationship between chromium picolinate and weight loss will be explored later in this article.

Though the benefits previously mentioned are the most well-known, there are several other things that promoters of chromium picolinate claim the supplement can do, such as curb depression, boost energy, prevent blemishes and even increase strength. Something to keep in mind, though, is the fact that not all of these claims have been substantiated by reputable scientific studies [source: Allen].

Like most supplements, chromium picolinate does have side effects. Click to the next page to find out what they are.


Chromium Picolinate Side Effects

Just like with any supplement or drug, it's important to weigh the benefits with the possible side effects before adding chromium picolinate to your daily regimen. And you should also think about any other medications you currently use. You could check with your physician or pharmacist to find out if there are any possible problems when combining chromium with your other medications. Furthermore, your doctor can give you better, specific information about what kind of side effects you could expect from chromium picolinate.

If you know that you have any allergies to the ingredients in chromium picolinate, it's definitely a good idea to avoid taking the supplements [source: Drugs]. In addition to any allergies, if you know that you're pregnant or nursing or have liver disease, diabetes, cancer or a weakened immune system, you will want to avoid taking chromium picolinate [source: Healthline].


More and more studies are showing that chromium picolinate's negative effects are quite drastic. Two reputable studies have shown that it can trigger mutations in DNA as a result of reactions with other elements found in the body [source: Women Fitness]. These elemental reactions have an adverse effect on DNA, which may cause cancer [source: UC Berkeley Wellness Letter]. Other, less severe reactions may result from the dangerous compounds created from these elements. In addition, since picolinate isn't found naturally occurring with chromium, the picolinate may eventually break apart from the chromium and have negative effects [source: Women Fitness].

It has been noted that some variations of chromium picolinate can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and even lead to ulcers [sources: Merck]. If taken in high doses, chromium picolinate can cause dermatitis and organ damage [source: Any Vitamins].

Chromium picolinate and weight loss have a unique relationship. Read on to find out what that is.


Chromium Picolinate and Weight Loss

Though chromium as a naturally occurring element found in foods has a natural function in the body, the chromium picolinate supplement is primarily promoted and used to aid the weight loss process. Advertisers claim that chromium picolinate melts fat, shrinks your appetite, increases metabolism and reduces cravings [source: Women Fitness].

The role of chromium picolinate in the weight loss process has always been a dubious one. Back in 1996, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had to submit a settlement against three California-based companies that were spreading unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of chromium picolinate. These companies stood behind their claims about chromium picolinate and weight loss, even though the facts were not verified. Some examples of the benefits they asserted were that chromium burned fat, caused weight loss, boosted muscle mass and lowered cholesterol [source: FTC].


Fitting with the FTC's complaint against the three California companies marketing chromium picolinate, scientific research has not been able to support the claims that chromium picolinate helps people lose weight. Several studies conducted during the late 1990s, when chromium picolinate really started to soar in popularity, indicate that chromium picolinate does not contribute to more lean muscle or decreased fat in the body [source: Allen].

For more information about chromium picolinate and other supplements, check out the links on the next page. And remember, it's a good idea talk to your doctor before starting a chromium picolinate -- or any supplement -- regimen.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Allen, Amanda. "Chromium Picolinate and Weight Loss." Vanderbilt University Psychology Department. (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Any Vitamins. "Chromium Information Page." Salamander Concepts. (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Body Building for You. "Chromium Picolinate Weight Loss and Side Effects." (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Drugs. "Chromium Picolinate." (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • FTC. "Chromium Picolinate Cases." November 7, 1996. (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Healthline. "Chromium Picolinate." Healthline Networks, Inc. (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Larsen, Joanne. "Chromium." (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Merck. "Chromium Picolinate." November, 2005.(Accessed 3/6/09)
  • NCBI. "Effects of chromium picolinate on body composition." December, 1995. (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. "Chromium." (Accessed 3/6/09)
  • Women Fitness. "Chromium Picolinate." (Accessed 3/6/09)