“Sausage biscuit or chocolate chip pancakes?” Aaron Gottlieb, owner of Native Sun Natural Foods Market, probes his seven-year-old son, Asher, to share his favorite breakfast food choices. The options are remarkably suited for any American kid’s palate. But unlike most American children, Asher can also make a killer guacamole from scratch. “I like to eat it more than I like to make it,” he says.
His older sister Edyn is a pro at chocolate chip cookies, but she only uses organic ingredients when baking. “My cookies are superb. I spent the longest time perfecting my chocolate chip cookies. I use coconut sugar instead of brown sugar, and it makes them ten times better,” she says. Asher and Edyn were born into a family dedicated to educating people living on the First Coast about the bond of food and wellness, arguably more than any other family in the history of the region. Yet when Asher and Edyn have friends over, pizza and chips are still on the menu…but with cauliflower and Brussels sprouts on the side.
“If the kids want pizza and chips, then I just get organic pizza and chips. I wouldn’t say that these foods are health foods, but if you are going to eat pizza then eat them with better quality ingredients,” says their mom, Erica. “We had some kids over the other night that said ‘Can we have more cauliflower? This is better than dessert!’ But then they had some cookies too.”
Erica and her husband Aaron are the founders of Native Sun Natural Foods Market, while Aaron’s parents, Mel and Debbie Gottlieb, are the driving force behind the Ornish Reversal Program at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a dietary program proven to reverse heart disease. Their work has helped countless people find a path to a healthier life. But the family wasn’t always so health conscious when it came to eating. Aaron remembers broccoli and cheese sauce as his main childhood vegetable of note, and his father Mel, a butcher’s son, ate a hearty portion of meat at most meals. Individually, they each found their way to healthier food choices at different stages of life and for different reasons. For Mel, it was the aftermath of a near fatal heart attack that served as a wakeup call. For his wife Debbie, she became a vegetarian after reading the book “Skinny Bitch” and learning about the meat industry while observing her children become more health conscious. Aaron found his passion for natural foods after battling with weight issues as a young adult, and failing at different diets. When he stopped eating meat, his weight dropped and didn’t come back. For the Gottlieb family, it doesn’t matter which road you take to get to a place of mindful eating. Everyone has different needs, and what is important is that you listen to your body.
“We all eat different things, so we don’t categorize ourselves as anything but just healthy eaters,” says Erica. “I was vegan for years, and while I was pregnant with Edyn. She was vegan until she was four. But I found that we were eating a lot of processed food.” When Edyn started to request cheese sandwiches regularly, Erica thought that it might be a better choice for her to eat poultry and fish. “Now we eat some meat. We thought eating real food was a better choice for us.”
Eating “real food” is a core component of the Gottlieb philosophy when it comes to diet and wellness. Aaron seconds his wife’s opinion that it is most important to eat with wellness in mind, and to be open to redefining what that means to you as life changes. “We decided to call ourselves health conscious eaters. While I love to cook vegan, I don’t want to restrict my family with labels when it comes to eating. Labels limit you from being able to grow with what is right for you,” says Aaron. “I have a lot of respect for everyone that follows a diet whether it is macrobiotic or paleo, but all I know is that eating clean is better than not.”
Mel and Debbie keep it clean by embracing vegetarianism. “When we used to go out to dinner, I was just as happy eating a salad and baked potato as he was his steak,” says Debbie who has embraced vegetarianism for over twelve years. Mel made the lifestyle change more recently. Years after suffering a heart attack and undergoing major heart surgery, in 2009 Mel was still dealing with chest pain related to heart disease. He made the decision to stop eating meat after reading Dr. Dean Ornish’s book “Reversing Heart Disease.” The chest pain went away. It was a challenge at first, “When people think about eating healthy, they think about eating cardboard. When I became a vegetarian, I thought I was going to miss the texture of meat in my food,” he says. “I had to kiss a lot of frogs before finding the veggie burger that I liked, but there are a million choices out there. You just have find the one that is good to you.”
Aaron, as a grocer, is in the business of finding the best natural foods for his customers. “You trust your doctor, you trust the guy who works on your car, but you don’t think about trusting your grocer,” says Aaron. “Most grocery stores are making decisions on profitability, but while all of us need to be profitable, I thought the right way to approach the grocery business is to give people an honest approach to natural foods that they can understand and trust.”
This can be tough in a world where “organic,” “natural” and “health” are all labels that are used loosely by some companies. According to Aaron, “organic” is a way of growing food without using chemicals or GMOs, while “health” he says, “is a subjective opinion; some people think it is vitamins, while to others it means something doesn’t taste good.” As a business owner Aaron has developed his own standards for what he deems “natural” food to sell to his customers. The team at Native Sun define “natural” as a food that is GMO free and doesn’t have certain harmful synthetic chemicals. If after researching a product, it doesn’t meet their criteria, then it doesn’t end up in the store. “We think clean natural food tastes better,” says Aaron.
Whether at work or at home, the Gottliebs see making smart food choices as a lifestyle that is better for the long run. “Eating can change your life. I don’t want to be immobile, as I get older. I don’t want to be in a walker,” says Mel. “There is an alternative. I don’t know if I am going to live any longer, but I am going to thoroughly enjoy the life that I have.”