Updated 03 June 2015

Carbohydrate intolerance – could chromium be the missing link?

The trace mineral chromium is a co-factor that 'helps' insulin lower blood sugar, and may help prevent insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

The Old Mutual Health Convention which recently took place in Cape Town has once again put the spotlight on the role of carbohydrate in our diets.

Although many people have experienced better health and considerable weight loss on a low- or no-carb diet, others don’t feel comfortable with such a radical change in their eating habits.

Refined sugar is a new addition to the human diet, and it is a fact that we ingest considerably more refined carbohydrates (cakes, pasta, cool drinks etc.) than just a few hundred years ago. Undoubtedly this is not a healthy state of affairs, but doing an about turn and cutting out carbohydrates altogether may also not be the answer.

Read: Watch those carbs!

With the possible exception of the Eskimos, carbohydrate has always been part of the human diet. From our hunter-gatherer forefathers, through the agricultural revolution and up to modern times – whether it was berries and tubers or ancient grains and pulses – we have always eaten some form of carbohydrate. What has changed is the amount of carbohydrate we consume.

Why Prof Tim Noakes avoids carbs

Prof Tim Noakes and Karen Thomson, founder of The Sugar Free Revolution Online Programme, hosted The Old Mutual Health Convention with internationally acclaimed doctors and researchers in South Africa from 19 to 22 February 2015.

The eating plan Prof Noakes follows is the “Banting” diet which was developed in 1861 in England by Harley Street surgeon, William Harvey. “Banting” is a low carbohydrate diet employed for weight loss and was used successfully until it went out of fashion in the nineteen fifties, and was replaced by the current low fat, high carbohydrate “heart healthy” diet.

The “Banting” diet works for Prof Noakes because he has a predisposition to adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. He is “carbohydrate resistant and “pre-diabetic” which means he cannot effectively clear glucose from his bloodstream – and as a result his pancreas over-secretes insulin.

The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes

In type 1 diabetes, which usually starts in childhood, your body manufactures little or no insulin. This is called insulin-dependent diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, however, your body does produce insulin, but cannot effectively use the insulin it makes, and this is called non-insulin dependent diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is preceded by insulin resistance, which is a condition whereby the body is unable to properly utilise the insulin it produces, leading to hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose levels).

Dr Jason Fung 

Dr Jason Fung, a presenter at the 2015 Old Mutual LCHF Health Convention in Cape Town, is a nephrologist with a special interest in weight management and diabetes.

Read: Why prescribing insulin for type 2 diabetics is wrong

Dr Fung is of the opinion that the use of insulin in the treatment of type 2 diabetes could be fuelling rather than treating the condition.

His theory is that when the body is continuously exposed to insulin, like a drug or antibiotic, over time the effectiveness of the dose is reduced. This means that higher dose is required each time the body develops resistance.

Giving insulin may therefore appear to improve the symptoms, but it doesn’t address the cause of the condition. For these reasons, Dr. Fung believes that the use of insulin in the treatment of type 2 diabetes should be avoided.

Chromium may be the missing link

Fact is that in many people insulin becomes less efficient at lowering blood sugar, leading to pre-diabetes and in many cases type 2 diabetes. There are many theories as to why insulin loses its effectiveness at clearing glucose from the bloodstream, but no one seems to know exactly why this happens. Should we perhaps be looking for something like a co-factor that “helps” insulin do its job?

Actually, the trace mineral chromium does just that!

The main benefit of trivalent chromium is that it is a building block of the glucose tolerance factor (GTF), whose purpose it is to increase your sensitivity to insulin. When you do not have adequate levels of GTF, your insulin and blood sugar levels remain high after ingesting carbohydrates. This is called insulin resistance (pre-diabetes), which can lead to type 2 diabetes and a whole range of symptoms like vascular and nerve damage, blindness, heart disease, hypertension etc.  

GTF is made from chromium, vitamin B3 and the amino acids glycine, glutamic acid and cysteine.

Chromium may also help to:

  • Metabolise fat
  • Increase good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Reduce physical and emotional stress
  • Reduce body fat and increase lean muscle mass

Unfortunately chromium is not well absorbed and it is estimated that we absorb only between 0.4% and 2.5% of the chromium we ingest. (In the light of the enormous increase in [especially refined] carbohydrate consumption over the last few centuries, our GTF production may not have kept up with demand.) The rest is excreted.

We need the following to help with chromium absorption:

  • Vitamin B3
  • Vitamin C
  • Complex carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains). Simple carbs like sucrose and fructose inhibit chromium absorption. (Complex carbs may also contain chromium.)
  • A healthy digestive tract. Sufficient hydrochloric acid in your stomach and a healthy gut will help you absorb the chromium you ingest.  

 Factors that inhibit chromium absorption:

  • Too much zinc – zinc is a chromium antagonist.
  • Refined carbohydrates or sugars 
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antacids
  • Unhealthy or inflamed gut

How much chromium do we need?

It is estimated that babies need 0.2mcg of chromium and grown men 35mcg. (Supplements like chromium picolinate and chromium nicotinate usually contain 200mcg.)

Good dietary sources of chromium:

  • Brewer's yeast – 112 (mcg per 100g)
  • Beef – 57
  • Whole wheat bread – 42
  • Wheat bran – 38
  • Rye bread – 30
  • Oysters – 26
  • Potato – 24

Read more:

10 golden rules of Banting

The psychology of carbohydrate addiction and why it makes us fat

Zoë Harcombe – reversing the obesity epidemic

Image: Chromium from Shutterstock


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