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Do "fat burners" work?
Part 1: Chromium Picolinate?

It's easy to see why there is so much interest in "fat-burner" supplements that are sold in health food stores all around the country. After all, the claims that are printed on their labels are quite exciting - "lose body fat", "build muscle", "increase your energy", etc. The question is, do these supplements actually work? Are they mostly hype and marketing?

I've compiled a review of the different supplements available either at your local health food store, by mail order or from your neighborhood multilevel network distributor. The information comes from the following organizations, universities and publications: the American Dietetic Association, the Food and Drug Administration Consumer Newsletter, Tufts University Nutrition Department, Sports Medicine Digest, University of California at Berkeley Wellness Department, and the National Council Against Health Fraud. I also attended a seminar at the 1997 World Fitness Convention in Anaheim, entitled "Nutrition Remedies: New Product and Gimmick Update"

Chromium Picolinate
This is easily, aside from calcium, the best selling mineral supplement of all time because the manufacturers claim it promotes fat loss while building muscle mass at the same time. Chromium picolinate's rise in popularity is due to a well-orchestrated aggressive marketing campaign by a company called Nutrition 21 and their consultant Gary Evans, Ph.D. The real story behind the meteoric rise in sales of this mineral supplement shows how the average consumer can be easily fooled into believing the claims that a product is backed up by reliable scientific research.

Chromium is an essential trace mineral (this means our body needs it for health and well being) that helps insulin in transferring glucose in the bloodstream into the cells. It also plays a role in fat metabolism. According to nutritionists, chromium is found in water beverages and in practically everything we eat though no one is sure of the exact amount that an individual has to take on a daily basis. The recommended dosage on most brands of chromium picolinate is 200 micrograms.

Chromium picolinate is a synthetic form of this naturally occurring mineral. The process was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Human Nutrition Research Center. Gary Evans was one of the chemists working on the project. He left the USDA and joined the Bemidgi State College in Minnesota in 1992 where he performed an experiment on a group of football players using chromium picolinate. He claimed that the players taking the mineral supplement lost substantially more body fat and gained more muscle mass than the players who did not take it.

By this time, the USDA held the patent on chromium picolinate and leased the exclusive rights to Nutrition 21 who, in turn, aggressively promoted it to vitamin dealers, gyms and weight loss centers. Gary Evans, meanwhile, wrote a book entitled (what else?) Chromium Picolinate and joined Nutrition 21 as their paid consultant. Chromium picolinate sales sharply increased (an estimated 100 million dollars annually!). It was added to diet drinks, to iced tea, chewing gum, anything they could get their hands on.

The ironic thing about this whole story is that while the ads for chromium picolinate always stress the point that it is patented by the USDA (most people, of course, are not aware that U.S. patenting laws do not require that claims for a health product be valid), subsequent research by other research centers of the USDA could not confirm the supplement's claims.

Other independent research studies could not find any difference in fat loss and muscle gain in individuals taking the supplement compared to those taking a placebo. Researchers also found that excess chromium could cause flushing, nervousness, and cardiac palpitations. They warned against using it as a long-term supplement since chromium picolinate can build up in body tissues and there has been evidence of genetic damage in animals given large doses.

By November 1996, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in. They forced Nutrition 21 and two other leading manufacturers to stop making claims that chromium picolinate promotes weight loss, burns fat, builds muscle, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugars and treats or prevents diabetes.

The FTC accused Nutrition 21 of falsely claiming that the health benefits of chromium picolinate are proven by valid scientific studies. Under the FTC settlement, chromium picolinate can still be sold in health stores but the distributors have to stop making the dubious claims on their product labels and sales materials.

The latest update on chromium picolinate comes (again) from the same USDA research centers. Scientists found that men taking 200 micrograms (the recommended dosage on the labels) were iron deficient in as little as two months. To save both iron and money, the researchers suggested that consumers, both men and women, stop taking the supplement and instead, lose weight the old-fashioned way - through healthy eating and regular exercise!

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