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As reported in this column and elsewhere, chromium is a popular supplement because of its putative anabolic properties. This
trace mineral's anabolic effects derive from both an increase in insulin effectiveness and an independent promotion of certain
protein-synthesizing enzymes. Because it increases insulin effectiveness, chromium is also touted as a weight-loss aid.
Previous studies have also pointed to an increased excretion of chromium following exercise. Since chromium isn't easy to get in food (which contains only tiny amounts), it makes sense to supplement your diet with chromium, especially since it is essentially nontoxic.
A recent study showed that, following a 12-week weight-training regimen, female college students - but not their male counterparts - gained weight while supplementing their diets with chromium. The gender- based disparity in this study remains a mystery.
The most recent published study on the bodybuilding-related effects of chromium appears in the journal Medicine and Science in Exercise and Sports (28:139-44, 1996). The study consisted of 16 male non-weightlifters, average age 23, who undertook a weight-training regimen for 12 weeks. The schedule involved three-day-a- week workouts utilizing machines for two sets per exercise of eight to 10 reps. One group supplemented their diets with 200 micrograms of chromium a day; another group took a placebo pill. Results showed that both groups increased muscular strength, but measured percentages of bodyfat and lean mass didn't differ between the chromium and placebo groups. After six weeks, chromium excretion increased in the chromium-consuming group.
According to researchers, this study shows that chromium fails the test as an effective anabolic and fat-loss supplement. But before you toss out your chromium pills, consider a few other facts about this mineral. For one, it does potentiate insulin in the body. Further, chromium is difficult to obtain, even from a balanced diet. A study published a few years ago found that computer-designed "balanced" diets still provided only 33% of the suggested daily intake of chromium.
So while chromium may not be the anabolic miracle that some people portray, it's still important and essential in the human diet.