May 18, 2024

Understanding science

When it comes to health, appearances can be deceiving: a lesson from egg boxing

A listener finds an educational use for one of my favorite sports

Peter Attia

Read Time 3 minutes

My passion for athletics and competition is no secret; from rucking to archery to motorsports, these pursuits are frequent topics of discussion on the podcast and my social media. But long before I ever engaged in those endeavors, I invented a sport of my own: egg boxing.

I first introduced my audience to egg boxing in a demo video I recorded a few years ago, but the concept is fairly simple. Take two raw chicken eggs, knock them side-to-side against each other, and whichever remains uncracked is the winner and goes on to “challenge” other eggs. In other words, no particular athletic skill or strategy required – just a light-hearted game to add some fun to the process of making an omelet. But recently, a listener of The Drive shared with me how she’d turned my offbeat teenage pastime into an educational experiment – one that reminds us to look beyond the superficial when it comes to assessing health.

An experiment in egg boxing

The listener, Bronwen Holdsworth, graciously agreed to let us share her story and the results of her experiment. It started as any other egg boxing competition, pitting egg against egg in accordance with the rules set out in the video above, and gradually, a champion emerged. Dubbed “MuhammEgg Ali,” the egg went undefeated in 200 boxing matches spanning three months, after which Bronwen shifted toward the primary aim of her experiment: assessing the effects of such repetitive side impacts on egg internal structure. She took MuhammEgg Ali to the Matai Medical Research Institute, where it underwent an MRI scan alongside a fresh, untested control egg.

Results: a tragic case of “TYI”

Visual inspection confirmed that the shells of both eggs were fully intact at the time of scanning, and MRI revealed the shells to be roughly similar in thickness. Internal structure, however, was discovered to differ dramatically between MuhammEgg Ali and the control egg.

Fluid images from the MRI demonstrate that while the fresh egg contained a clearly defined yolk structure surrounded by egg white, the yolk within MuhammEgg Ali appeared to have ruptured and partially mixed with the white, as shown in Figure 1 below. These results (which have also been shared on the Matai Medical Research Institute’s LinkedIn page) reveal a stark discrepancy between the internal state of the boxer egg and its fully intact external structure.

Figure 1: MRI revealed substantial internal structural damage resulting from repetitive impacts. Fluid images (with color overlay) show clear separation between egg yolk and egg white in the fresh control egg (left), while the internal contents of the egg boxing champion MuhammEgg Ali (right) have partially mixed.

Both eggs were subsequently cracked open and emptied of their fluid contents, which confirmed the findings of the MRI scan. In contrast to the distinct separation between yolk and white from the control egg, the contents of MuhammEgg Ali were scrambled and rotten (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Visual inspection of egg contents confirms MRI findings. In contrast to the distinct yolk and white of the control egg, the contents of MuhammEgg Ali are blended and rotten.

Importantly, the two eggs were unmatched in age (the control egg was two weeks old while MuhammEgg Ali was three months old), which may have contributed to the observed differences in contents. However, this explanation seems unlikely to account fully for the internal damage to MuhammEgg Ali, as anecdotal data from my own research team would indicate that eggs can retain full separation between yolk and white even after three months, at least under refrigerated conditions. Thus, we conclude that the yolk rupture observed in the boxer egg was due at least in part to its exposure to repeated blunt force impact, and we therefore [posthumously] diagnose MuhammEgg Ali with traumatic yolk injury, or TYI.

The importance of looking beyond the surface

Of course, humans are very different from chicken eggs, and this experiment was intended primarily to entertain (and perhaps to promote scientific curiosity among Bronwen’s grandchildren, who, along with those at the Matai Institute, assisted her in this project). Yet this story still serves as a reminder of a lesson that applies to humans and eggs alike: appearances can be deceiving where health is concerned. 

The point may seem obvious, but it is nevertheless often overlooked by both patients and physicians. For instance, many thin individuals fail to monitor their metabolic health because they assume [incorrectly] that a lack of obesity translates to a near-zero percent risk of insulin resistance or liver disease. Physicians may fail to check for or treat atherosclerosis because a patient is in their 30s and runs marathons. An individual with massive biceps may assume body composition analysis is unnecessary and miss the presence of an alarming amount of visceral fat.

So in a way, humans have something in common with chicken eggs after all: outer appearances aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be.


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